• 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


    Tuesday, September 30, 2008

    Podcast: Life of Brian (1979)

    I've just posted September's podcast on Monty Python's Life of Brian.

    The other 18 talks in this podcast are still available to listen to.

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    Saturday, September 27, 2008

    Paul Newman (1925-2008)

    I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of my favourite actor of all time, Paul Newman. Newman started his acting career in 1954 with a stinker - The Silver Chalice - but never looked back. He brought to the screen some of the cinemas most memorable characters including Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff, Fast Eddie Felson and my favourite, Cool Hand Luke. I've seen 20 of the 60+ films he stared in and he was mesmerising in almost everyone. Even when the film itself had little to recommend it Newman turned up and put in a grent performance.

    But it's his life off screen that impressed me most. He was famously married to Joanne Woodward for 50 years - almost unheard of in Hollywood. Whilst many of his colleagues in the fifties ruined themselves with drugs and drink he found his way to a steadier path. When he was faced with huge personal tragedy when his son, Scott, died of an overdose, he started a drug abuse prevention centre in his memory. And as he grew older he not only gave generously to charity, but had the foresight to start businesses in his name that would generate wealth for charities on his behalf.

    I'm saddened that I don't have the time right now to write down all I would like to say about Paul Newman, but it's late and I need to go home to my wife. I think he would have approved.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008

    Mary, Mother of Christ: An Update from Barbara Nicolosi

    Back in January 2007, MGM gained the rights to Benedict Fitzgerald's screenplay Myriam, Mother of the Christ. Despite the fact it was lined up for an Easter 2008 release date, there's been almost no news about it at all, save the occasional detail about Fitzgerald's law suit against Mel Gibson.

    But yesterday, Barbara Nicolosi, resurfaced to announce that not only had she just handed in the fifth rewrite of the script, but that it had also just changed it's title to the more obvious Mary, Mother of Christ (see IMDB page). Here's what she had to say:
    I submitted probably the fifth version of the rewrite today. I think the thing is amazingly better than it was two weeks ago. ("Amazingly better"? Yeah, I have no words left with which to think or express myself.) Hopefully, the producers will agree and I will have a break for a bit.

    It was cool to see that the production company has entered a listing for the project here. I can't say a lot about the project yet. I can say it has some wonderfully profound theological moments that hearken back to The Passion of the Christ in style.

    I have two or three other projects which could be listed up on IMDB, but for some reason the producers are cagey about doing that. Now, that I'm really up there, I've become obsessed with getting the others up. This is that Hollywood disease, I think. But, as we say in the biz, it is an honor just to have a listing.
    Quite. Not really sure what to make of the final line of the second paragraph. Jeffrey Overstreet credits Nicolosi with "talking Mel Gibson into adding flashbacks to The Passion of the Christ" and Fitzgerald obviously wrote that film's screenplay, but at the same time comparing your movie to that film is par for the course of promoting a Bible film these days. And calling parts of your own screenplay "wonderfully profound" seems to rubs me up the wrong way. But then we British are pretty squeamishness about anything other than self-deprecation.

    Nevertheless, it's good to hear that this film, at least, is still on track. Thanks to Peter Chattaway (IMDB page) for spotting the story.

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    Tuesday, September 23, 2008

    Trial Of The Knights Templar

    Having reviewed the three other entries in Channel Five's religious documentary series Secrets of the Cross, I thought that, for the sake of completeness, I would offer a few comments on tonight's programme Trial Of The Knights Templar.

    I don't have a great deal of knowledge about the Templars. In fact, I'm ashamed to say that most of what I have been told about them came from "The Da Vinci Code" and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So as something of novice I'm hoping tonight's episode was at least as accurate as the earlier entries were.

    Having said all that, had I sat down and made a list of all the topics I thought this programme would cover I would have got a good deal of it correct. So talk of their trade in relics, the Holy Grail and the Turin Shroud occupy the programme's early stages. This then leads back into a more detailed look at the Crusades. But, for a modern documentary, the approach the filmmakers took was most unusual. Instead of telling the usual tales of crusader violence towards Muslims, Jews, and even other Christians, the Templars were treated far more deferentially. Whilst this approach may have been in vogue 50 years ago, its rare that anyone praises the crusaders for anything these days. Whilst it certainly wasn't a whitewash, it did feel a little odd.The film then turns its attentions to the fall of the Templars at the hands of Philip IV. Here we are told about the power hungry king and a weak and vacillating pope. Philip was in debt to the Templars and so charged them with heresy to get them out of the way. Pope Clement absolved the Templars (even despite a damning, and recently re-discovered, report into their initiation ceremonies) but was ultimately unable to save them from Philip's schemes.

    It's to the film's credit that during its final section, which examines what became of the Templars and their still undiscovered wealth, it never once mentions Opus Dei, or "The Da Vinci Code". All of which leaves me with the impression that it may, actually, be reasonably trustworthy, and Wikipedia, at least (!), broadly agrees with the programme's presentation.

    Once more, the visuals are fairly impressive, and whilst the score for this series was starting to become a little tiresome overall, it was no less effective here than in any of the other episodes.

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    Monday, September 22, 2008

    Bible Society Releases Passion DVD

    The Bible Society released their resources on BBC1's The Passion today. The major news in their 3 disc DVD (above right) which contains all four episodes and a number of extras. The site actually gives two list of extras, one for teachers and the other for churches, and it's a little unclear as to whether this means that you can opt for one or the other or whether both lots of extras are included in the one set. What is clear is that the third disc is actually a CD-ROM, the notes from which are available to purchase pre-printed (above left).

    The full list of extras are listed as follows:
    For Teachers:
    DVD features special Clips for Schools menus, giving instant access to clips identified in the classroom resources.

    The CD-ROM - features a range of RE creative learning activities produced by top educational writers and advisors providing

    * Fully developed classroom resources linked to film clips for Key Stage 3, GCSE and 16+ general RE - all keyed into national guidelines and criteria for learning objectives and assessment.
    * Worksheets and handouts to project and copy.
    * Reflective activities and discussion starters.
    * Ideas for collective worship and animated slide show suitable for collective worship and class use.
    * A unique, dramatic and inspiring perspective on the person of Jesus, Holy Week and Easter and the Christian faith.
    * Creative viewing and thinking strategies using the DVD.
    * Certificate 12, Region 2 PAL, Length: 180 mins.
    * Includes English subtitles.
    * Teaching resources also available separately as a 44-page printed book.

    For Churches:
    * The CD-ROM features a range of stimulating and creative resources to integrate the BBC series in your church, home group, Lent programmes and Christian enquirers' groups.
    * Step-by-step discussion guide through all four episodes with the option of dividing the material into six Lent sessions.
    * Reflective activities and creative discussion starters.
    * Creative viewing and thinking strategies using the DVD.
    * Ideas for use in worship
    One bonus of this release is that "the DVD may be shown in home, educational, church and cultural settings provided there is no admission charge" which is actually very rare.

    The BBC DVD goes on sale next month, but at the same price (RRP£19.99) and seemingly without this sets host of extras I'm not really sure what the point is. It does have better cover art (I don't really like this set's cover at all), and I suppose it may be available more cheaply. For example Amazon are selling it for just £12.98 at the minute.

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    Bible Films that Never Were

    Cecil B. DeMille's name will forever be associated with the biblical epic even though he only ever made three and a half films based on the Bible - his two versions of The Ten Commandments (19231 and 1956), his Jesus film The King of Kings and 1949's Samson and Delilah. Indeed, given that Samson and the second Ten Commandments were two of the last three movies he ever made , it's a reputation he might never have earned at all. True, there were a number of other ancient epics in his seventy-film canon, but it was those last two films in particular, that cemented his place in the popular imagination as the man that made biblical epics.

    However, I've been reading Robert S. Birchard's "Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood" recently, and one of the appendices lists the veteran director's unrealised projects. Given the vast number of movies he made, it's surprising that there are only twelve sucfilms, but it's interesting that four of them are Bible films.

    The first of these is The Deluge which I discussed last year. DeMille was considering making the film in the late 20s, but when it became apparent that Michael Curtiz was already making Noah's Ark he switched his attention to The King of Kings instead. Aspiring filmmakers considering adapting the story of Noah take note.

    The second film on Birchard's list was Esther (or The Story of Esther) and he notes that MacKinlay Cantour was working on this in the summer of 19342. Birchard doesn't say anymore, but given that this was the same year that DeMille directed Cleopatra, my guess is that he ultimately decided he could only handle one heroine-driven ancient epic at a time.

    There's a good deal more information on Queen of Queens, DeMille's planned story of Jesus's mother, (though it's hard to believe that such a title would ever have been taken seriously).
    Jeanie Macpherson worked on the script from November 20, 1939 to July 27, 1940. William C. DeMille also worked on the script from March 4, 1940 to June 7, 1941, and William Cowan wrote on the project from September 3 to October 9, 1940. Queen of Queens met some resistance from the Catholic Church , and the film was never scheduled for production.3
    Lastly, Birchard tell us that Macpherson also started work on a script for the story of King David, Thou Art the Man.4 This was six years before David and Bathsheba reached the screen with its take on David's adultery, so it seems unlikely that once again DeMille had been put off by a similar project at another studio. Perhaps, given his long-standing desire to bring Samson's story to the screen he decided to focus on that instead.

    Aside from the list of DeMille's films-that-never-were, I was also interested to read that Steve Reeves and Cary Grant had both been considered for the leading role in Samson and Delilah. Reeves is not in the least surprising, given that he went on to play Hercules and Goliath, but it's incredible to think that any kind of consideration was ever given to Grant. Of course, the whole point of the Samson and Delilah story is that the source of Samson's strength isn't obvious. So it wouldn't have been inconceivable for Grant to play him, but when you look at the final film, and it's emphasis on, and love for, Mature's oiled torso, it's hard to imagine Grant in that same role.


    On a not unrelated note, Eric David of Christianity Today has written a short piece on French director Robert Bresson which claims that he was initially approached to direct Dino de Laurentiis' The Bible: In The Beginning.
    In the mid 1960s, Dino de Laurentiis planned a series of films based on the Bible, featuring top directors of the day, including Huston, Visconti, Welles and Fellini. When Bresson, slated to direct Genesis, told de Laurentiis that he planned to film it in Hebrew and Aramaic, and wouldn't show any animals on Noah's Ark, only their footprints in the sand, he was fired. Huston took over and The Bible: In The Beginning, was released, but did not perform well enough to justify the other directors helming their respective films. Bresson yearned to film Genesis the rest of his life, but it never came to pass.
    That would certainly have made for a very different film, but given that Bresson instead went on to direct his masterful Christ-figure film Au hasard Balthazar that same year, and that Huston's version has so much to commend it, it may well have all been for the best.

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    Friday, September 19, 2008

    Saint or Sinner Review at ReJesus and CTVC Trial of the Templars Page

    I've just got a couple more pieces on Channel 5's Secrets of the Cross series. Firstly, following my review here for Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?, I have written a second, quite different review for rejesus.

    Secondly, producers CTVC have uploaded a page on their website about their final entry in the series Trial of the Templars. Here's their summary
    Mysterious warriors in The Da Vinci Code, the real Knights Templar have been shrouded in mystery for 900 years... A corporation of Christian Crusaders condemned by the lies and disloyalty of their allies, the Templars are inseparable from the legendary Holy Grail. In an eerie story taking us from Paris and Avignon to ancient tunnels under Jerusalem, a shocking manuscript unearthed in the Vatican shows that the Templars were liquidated by an extremist with a Christ complex, amid a tale of corporate greed. Though viciously tortured by the King of France, did the Templars ultimately aid in their own destruction..?
    I'm going to wait until I've seen this before deciding whether to review it and if so where. It's not a Jesus film as such so I may leave commenting on this episode to others.

    Edit: The CTVC website now has short excerpts from reviews at The Sunday Times, the Mail and the Express, though strangely I've not been able to find those reviews at those paper's websites.

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    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Birdsong at London Film Festival

    The programme for the London Film Festival has been announced and amongst the treats for thos eable to attend is Birdsong (El Cant Dels Ocells). The festival has done a great job with its website: in addition to a neat summary there are also 11 stills from the film both in colour and black and white.

    The film will be playing on Thursday 16th October at 18:30in National Film Theatre 3 and again at 16:15 the next day (Friday 17th October), this time in the ICA Cinema. I'm not sure whether I'll be able to make it, but the following snippet from Maria Delgado capsule review certainly tempts me:
    Serra’s visual palette, however, moving effortlessly from Laurel and Hardy’s Another Fine Mess to Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, shows a film-maker effortlessly able to draw on the mythology of the past to examine what spirituality means in our present day world.

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    Wednesday, September 17, 2008

    Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner

    Channel Five's series continued last night with Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner. Having downplayed the Jesus Tomb controversy, I was curious to see what angle the filmmakers would take this time around. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has proved so popular that there's little mileage to be made converting Leigh Teabing's lecture into a documentary and the film's publicity suggested that would be focussing elsewhere.

    After a brief introduction the film explores the subtleties of the brief details about Mary found in the Bible and proceeds to explain how she came to be thought of as a prostitute. Having aquitted Pope Gregory for slander (he was, apparently, simply trying to provide a role model for sinners) we move to Magdala to hear about the rebellion-tinged peasant lifestyle that Mary would have left to follow Jesus. There's then a passage about Mary's exorcism which suggests that it was invented by Luke to damage her credibility. This is practically the only controversial assertion in the first half of the film, and we're soon back into consensus country with the claim that Mary was a women of wealth who was one of Jesus's supporters.

    The second part of the film begins by looking at what the non-canonical gospels have to say about Mary. This is one of the weaker sections of the film. It starts with the Gospel of Philip's "used to kiss her on the [blank]" passage which Bart Ehrman defly demythologises. But it's apparently close enough to the "Da Vinci Code" to justify a brief excursus to examine the strange Provencal traditions that surround Mary. It's all a bit odd and rather spoils the programme's flow. There's a mention of Mary as a mystic and we return, somewhat awkwardly, to gnostic writings and the Gospel of Mary. Ehrman tries bravely to downplay the importance of the Gospel of Mary, but the narrator gets the final word in and, as with the 2006 documentary The Secrets of Mary Magdalene, we're left with the impression that all ancient documents should be set on an equal footing. As with Brown's novel the somewhat grassroots evolution of the biblical canon is ultimately overlooked and the process is depicted instead as a conspiracy.The final section returns to look at Mary's importance as the first witness of the resurrection. But it all ends up in something of a muddle. So Mary is meant to be important because she was the first witness to the resurrection. But actually she just had a vision. Which, it turned out, was no good as evidence because she was just an "hysterical woman". But thankfully she inspired the men to have them too. And then their stories inspired the empty tomb story. Meanwhile they ignored her mystic wisdom and wrote her out of the story. All of which is supposed to make her the real founder of Christianity and somehow comendable eventhough it means she ultimately mislead millions of people.

    So the film concludes that she was neither a leader in the early church, nor an intimate companion, she was just in the right place at the right time. Except, is it possible for there to be a right place and a right time if you just happen to be hallucinating? And does it count as being in the right place at the right time if you get written out of the story later anyway?

    Tenous final segments aside, there are one or two memorable visuals. The switch between the woman washing Jesus's feet and Mary (played by Lucy Shaljian) was effective. On the other hand, the sight of the inhabitants of Provence hoisting the gold-space-suit-clad skull of Mary through the streets will stay with me for all the wrong reasons. But it perhaps reflects the documentary as a whole: It's just a group of people making a lot of noise about something that is showy, full of air but ultimately unprovable at the core. Perhaps they should have stuck with Dan Brown.


    In related news, Mark Goodacre has posted his own thoughts on Who Really Killed Jesus and the only quality daily paper still covering this is The Telegraph and even they appear to have simply re-hashed the Channel 5 blurb.

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    Monday, September 15, 2008

    Noah Films Still Flooding In

    Peter Chattaway links to the Jerusalem Post's article about Israeli director Uri Paster (King of Beggars). In it they discuss his move to Hollywood and his first project Sold Out! - a contemporary musical on the story of Noah:
    Noah is presented as history's first stage director, and he puts the animals through auditions before they are assigned places on the ark, or rejected.

    The cast of characters gives new meaning to the word multiethnic, reflecting the roles of Noah's three sons - Shem, Ham and Japheth - as the forefathers of all mankind. And mankind, in this case, includes an Algerian musician, a Reform rabbi, a black rapper, a hassidic tenor, a Hungarian stripper, a Chinese opera singer, a French pop vocalist, Jewish kids and, for good measure, a bisexual producer. Everyone, though, speaks English. The ark itself becomes the setting for a Broadway show, with Noah's wife as the producer.
    By my count this is the eighth film about Noah to go into production in recent years (not counting last year's Evan Almighty which has already been released). Back at the end of July FilmChat also carried the story that Warner Bros. were working on an animated film about Noah's Ark along with Casey Affleck (pictured above in Vanity Fair's re-shot still from Hitchcock's Lifeboat. According to The Hollywood Reporter, that film, Aardvark Art, is about "a group of animals who are stranded when they are not chosen to go on Noah's Ark".

    Here's the complete list of all eight:
  • Unnamed Noah Film - Darren Aronofsky
  • Sold Out! - Uri Paster (above)
  • Aardvark Art - Warner Bros. / Casey Affleck (above)
  • The Flood - Promenade Pictures' sequel to The Ten Commandments (2007)
  • Rock the Boat - French animation (Gaumont)
  • Noah's Ark - Unified Pictures / Bob Funk
  • El Arca - Patagonik (Argentina)
  • The Missing Lynx - Kandor Graphics
  • As well as omitting Evan Almighty, I've also excluded the somewhat tangential Polish film Ark which played in Vancouver amongst other places at the end of last year.

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    More on Secrets of The Cross

    Channel 5's religious documentary series Secrets of the Cross continues tomorrow night with Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner The Channel Five website doesn't have a dedicated page to this yet, but the listings describe the show as follows:
    Religious documentary focusing on the life and legend of Mary Magdalene. Recorded in the Bible as the first person to see Christ after the Resurrection, Mary's exact role in Christianity has long been debated. This film examines the scant details of her life and questions the theory that she was deliberately sidelined by the Christian church in order to protect the male hierarchy.
    Filmmakers CTVC, however, have published their page and it summarises it thus:
    Mary Magdalene’s vision of a risen Jesus was the spark that ignited the flame of Christianity, turning the Jesus Movement from a minor Jewish sect into a new world faith. Without her there may never have been Christianity.

    Yet strangely, rather than celebrate her as a founder of the faith, the Gospels say almost nothing about her, the early Christian church branded her a whore and western art and literature have constantly reinvented her down the centuries. She remains one of the most mysterious women in history.

    This programme goes in search of the real Mary Magdalene and asks whether all the conspiracy theories hide an even greater truth.
    Interestingly, both synopses suggest the documentary will be calling into question the theories about Mary popularised by The Da Vinci Code. As with Secrets of the Jesus Tomb it appears that this film will debunk the debunkers.

    I'll hopefully review that at some point in the middle of the week. Meanwhile, I've written a different review of Who Really Killed Jesus for ReJesus. I'm both surprised and disappointed that none of the other bibliobloggers have published their reviews or thoughts yet. It was a serious documentary which will have engaged viewers that might not ordinarily be interested in Biblical Studies. Mark Goodacre has promised to post something, but otherwise it seems like bit of an opportunity missed.

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    Saturday, September 13, 2008

    More on Darren Aronofsky's Noah

    /film posted their interview Darren Aronofsky yesterday, and towards the end of their time together they asked him about his Noah project that I discussed back in May last year. Whilst his answer isn't quite as interesting as it was in his previous interview in The Guardian it's nice to heard he's still passionate about the project. Here's what he had to say:
    Peter Sciretta: Who wrote it?
    Darren Aronofsky: I wrote it. Me and Ari Handel, the guy who worked on the Fountain. It’s a great script and it’s HUGE. And we’re starting to feel out talent. And then we’ll probably try and set it up…
    Peter Sciretta: So this isn’t something you can make for six million dollars?
    Darren Aronofsky: No, this is big. I mean, Look… It’s the end of the world and it’s the second most famous ship after the Titanic. So I’m not sure why any studio won’t want to make it.
    Peter Sciretta: You would hope so.?
    Darren Aronofsky: Yeah, I would hope so. It’s a really cool project and I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet. So I think it’s got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist. He’s a really interesting character. Hopefully they’ll let me make it.
    That part of the interview has apparently gained such a lot of interest that Sciretta posted a follow-up piece just on Aronofsky's Noah in which he adds this to what we already know:
    The idea originated ten years ago, even before Pi, when Aronofsky saw a museum exhibit. But the director’s fascination with Noah’s Ark began when he was only 13-years-old. Aronofsky won a United Nations poetry competition at his Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn school. The poem was about the end of the world as seen through the eyes of Noah. When Brad Pitt abruptly left The Fountain just weeks before principal photography, Aronofsky took some time off and began to develop a variety of different projects, one of them being the Noah screenplay.
    Obviously I'll be reporting on this one as it (hopefully) progresses. Meanwhile, you can read all of the posts I've made on films about Noah here. Incidentally the image above is from Jacopo Bassano's 1574 painting "Noah's Sacrifice" which seems kind of fitting given Aronofsky's earlier comments about Noah's "survivor's guilt".

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    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Who Really Killed Jesus?

    Hot on the heels of last week's Channel 5 documentary The Secrets of the Jesus Tomb (my review) comes Who Really Killed Jesus, the second in a series of four films collectively titled Secrets of the Cross. On paper this looks likely to be the most serious of the four. Instead of paranoid claims about conspiracy theories that rock Christianity to the core we get a thoughtful investigation as to how to interpret the Bible in the light of historical research.

    The Gospels, we're told, paint Pilate as an "indecisive and weak" ruler bullied into crucifying Jesus by the Jewish people and their Chief Priests. History suggests otherwise and that the 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism which followed as a result were based on a piece of spin by the gospel writers.

    Of course the premise is a little too black and white. The historical evidence carries a good deal of weight - Philo and Josephus both criticise Pilate's brutality; Roman soldiers were battle hardened such that one man's death would be highly unlikely to trouble someone such as Pilate; and crucifixion was incredibly commonplace, particularly around religious festivals - but the evidence the programme omits polarises "what the Bible says" and "what history says" unnecessarily. After all the Bible itself records an example of Pilate's viciousness. Luke 13:1 tells us about the "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices". And the Nicene Creed holds Pilate, rather than any of his Jewish counterparts, responsible for Jesus's death.

    The historical case is presented very strongly here. Starting off in the Caesarean amphitheatre with the stone carrying an engraving of Pilate's name which was discovered in 1961, the programme quickly moves on to Rome to trace his background in the context of the empire's politics. He would have nepotised his way to an army commission and ended up being sent to Judea in 26 AD as its prefect. His 3000 troops were based at Caesarea and had to keep the peace amongst perhaps 160,000 natives desperate to throw off their Roman oppressors. His response was to rule with such brutality that ultimately he was recalled to Rome in disgrace.Whilst academics may quibble with some of the details, as they do with each other's arguments whenever they engage in serious discussion, it's a detailed presentation of the facts and leading interpretations that's fairly unexpected for a documentary on Channel 5. There were a number of things which, I am semi-embarrassed to admit, were new to me, even if the thrust of the overall argument was very much familiar.

    This is down, in part, to the strength of the team of experts that Channel 5 assembled to tell their story. 3-4 years ago this documentary would have found Mark Goodacre popping up with insightful contributions. This time around we get Helen Bond, James Tabor, Yosef Porath, Alexander Yakobson, and biographer Anne Wroe. Even Shimon Gibson pops up having seemingly got lost on his way back from the Jesus Tomb feature. The emphasis is clearly more on archaeologists than textual scholars, but when three of a documentary's team of experts have been involved in excavating key Judean locations it gives it real credibility.

    There's also some good use of location shooting. Whilst documentaries cannot match the depth that a book can provide they can illustrate things more powerfully in a single shot than a written work can ever hope to achieve. As there's a good deal of archaeology being discussed it helps to see the locations in question. Twice, James Tabor is able to turn and use the topography in the background to make his point. And the shot from the top of a watchtower in Jerusalem perfectly illustrates the way Pilate's men would have been able to keep an eye on the city during busy periods.

    The film's other strength is its desire to remain level headed. There's the odd spurious claim ("extraordinarily there's no hard evidence any of it happened"), but generally it lets the experts speak and resists the temptation to crank things up into a scandal.

    That said, many will disagree with the film's conclusions, not least in evangelical circles. Whilst most accept that the gospels recontextualise the story to appeal to their specific audiences, the suggestion that they did it out of a desire to appeal to Rome and distance themselves from the Jews will be too much for some. Likewise with the suggestion that the passover amnesty was simply a "literary device". To a certain extent they have my sympathy, but the problem is that failing to read the gospels in this context has led to centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. While it's uncomfortable for some to wrestle with the issue of the historicity of the gospels, it's an essential task. It's simply not good enough to say that the perpetrators of anti-Semitism over the years were just not following Jesus's example.

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    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Secrets of the Jesus Tomb at ReJesus

    I meant to post this earlier in the week, but my article on last week's Channel 5 documentary Secrets of the Jesus Tomb is now up at ReJesus.

    I also noticed that James Tabor, who is interviewed in the documentary, has a short piece on the programme, although he is yet to actually see it. However, he also mentions that this is the first in a series of four documentaries called "Secrets of the Cross" with future shows about Mary Magdalene, Jesus's death, and the Knights Templar. The second film in the series, Who Really Killed Jesus, apparently aired this Tuesday and is now also available on Five on Demand. I'll post a review of that one shortly.

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    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    "No Room at the Inn"

    I've just been watching a snippet from The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ and something stood out to me that I'd not noticed before. Most dramatised versions of Jesus's birth, from our first experiences in school nativity plays through to multi-million dollar Hollywood movies, feature a moment with an innkeeper. "Sorry, there is no room at the inn" he says before tentatively offering Mary and Joseph his stable.

    Whilst Hollywood may have dramatised this moment a little more effectively than the average nativity play, it's still, essentially, the same idea only with better costumes and (sometimes only marginally) better acting. This becomes particularly obvious when we view the original text from Luke 2:7 which simply says "and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn". There's no mention of the innkeeper, certainly no connection between the owner of what appears to be Bethlehem's only inn and the location of the manger.

    So I was interested to note that in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ it's not the innkeeper who suggest the stable, but some seemingly unconnected little girl on the street (pictured above). Which makes me wonder, was Life and Passion boldly subverting tradition in favour of fidelity to the original text? Or is it just that the tradition of the innkeeper was not as widely established 100 years ago as it is today? Given the film's pageant-like feel and it's reliance on traditional imagery the latter seems more likely. If so, it's interesting to see how quickly something can become so ingrained on the public consciousness.

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    Monday, September 08, 2008

    El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong) Playing this Week at TIFF

    Back in June I mentioned a new film on the three wise men El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong) by Albert Serra. As I'm currently writing a piece on Nativity Films for the Winter edition of The Reader I thought I'd check to see if there is any news on it getting a general release in the run up to Christmas. Whilst there doesn't seem to be any news on that, it does appear that Birdsong will be playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival as follows:
    Tuesday September 9th 5:00pm AMC 5
    Wednesday September 10 8:30pm Varsity 5
    Friday September 12 5:00pm AMC 4
    It turns out that the film will also be playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival where they will also be showing Waiting for Sancho - Mark Peranson's documentary about the making of the film. The VIFF dates are as follows:
    Birdsong - Oct. 5th at 6:40pm - Empire Granville 7 Theatre 3
    Waiting for Sancho - October 6th 7:00pm - Vancity Theatre
    Birdsong - Oct. 7th at 1:15pm - Vancity Theatre.
    Waiting for Sancho - October 7th at 3:45pm - Vancity Theatre
    I'm looking to hear the reports of Vancouverites and fellow Bible film fans Peter Chattaway and Ron Reed in due course.

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    Friday, September 05, 2008

    Biblical Studies Carnival XXXIII

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    The thirty third Biblical Studies Carnival is up at Michael Halcomb'sPisteuomen weblog. Michael mentions an incredible 150 different biblioblogs (which leaves me feeling, rather stupidly, a little left out. Oh well, maybe next month!) Personal insecurities aside, to find the time to hunt out, read and disseminate that many different posts is hugely impressive.

    Next month’s carnival will be held at Doug Chaplin's MetaCatholic. Tough act to follow Doug!


    Thursday, September 04, 2008

    Secrets of the Jesus Tomb: Reviews

    I didn't manage to catch Channel 5's Tuesday night documentary Secrets of the Jesus Tomb by CTVC. That said, it's available to view online so I might see if I can find the time before it disappears. Essentially it's covering the same story as last year's The Lost Tomb of Jesus only without involving James Cameron. Here's Five's website blurb:
    In 1980, an ancient tomb was unearthed on a building site in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot. Inside the tomb, archaeologists Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson were intrigued to discover several boxes of bones – "ossuary’s"[sic.] – dating from the first century AD. The inscriptions on the side of these boxes included the names "Jesus son of Joseph", "Mary", another Mary in the rare form of "Mariamne", "Jose", "Matthew" and – perhaps most fascinating of all – "Judah son of Jesus".

    The similarity of these names to the New Testament family and disciples of Jesus Christ were clear, yet the boxes were removed from the tomb and left untouched in the stores of the Israeli Antiquity Authority for over 20 years. It was not until the early years of this century that Bible historian James Tabor began to wonder if the tomb at Talpiot was in fact the final resting place of Christ.

    A series of scientific tests and a close analysis of ancient texts seemed to suggest that this could indeed be the tomb of Jesus, especially if the ossuary ascribed to "Mariamne the master" could be associated with Mary Magdalene. If this connection was made, it would also suggest that the ‘Judah son of Jesus’ ossuary belonged to Jesus’s son.
    Five is probably the most lowbrow of British TV's terrestrial channels. (Whoever composed the photo above doesn't seem to have grasped that the bones are meant to be kept in the boxes, and, if you're going to promote a documentary about the "Jesus Tomb" you should probably learn how to spell "ossuaries"). That said there are a number of scholars although it's no surprise to find Bart Ehrman and James Tabor are the most prominent.

    Yesterday's papers featured reviews from The Times and The Telegraph, whilst The Guardian simply mentions that the show "attracted 1.4 million" viewers.

    Mark Goodacre has a good length review rejecting some of the more dismissive reviews
    The documentary makers should, however, be lauded for avoiding sensationalism and for sounding fairly reasonable, at least by the end of the programme. A few features showed some sensitivity to scholarly conventions, like the use of "BCE" and "CE" (unexplained in the programme) rather than "BC" and "AD", but at other points repeated cliché (Christianity rocked to its foundations) and banality (Jesus was not a Christian) will have turned away the educated viewer. And if they said that ossuaries were bone boxes once, they said it a hundred times.
    Jim West also makes a few comments, mainly based on Andrea Mullaney's review in The Scotsman.

    Edit: Having Just watched this a few further comments to add. Firstly, I think this documentary benefited from being shown over a year after the Jesus Tomb story first broke (or at least regained our attention). One of the comments made at the time was that the because the news was released such a short time before the documentary there was no time for the wider scholarly community to sift it properly. Now that time has passed some of the objections to the theory that this is in fact Jesus's tomb have been allowed to, um, ossify.

    Secondly, as I only had this on in the background, I only caught some of the visuals, but it seemed that, at least on that level, that it was nicely put together. It was nice to see someone looking genuinely middle eastern playing Jesus, and there were some interesting angles and nice dissolves etc.

    Finally, it seems that Helen Bond was involved at some stage as she is pictured on the Channel Five website, but she seems to have been cut out of the final programme. That's a not only a little bit cheeky, but also a bit of a shame. It would have been nice to have a few more British scholars involved.

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    Wednesday, September 03, 2008

    Telford Reviews Passion Books

    Durham University's William Telford is someone who's been studying the Bible and film for a long, long time. He first published on the subject as long ago as 1995 when his essay "The New Testament in Fiction and Film: A Biblical Scholar's Perspective" was included in Words Remembered, Texts Renewed. Essays in Honour of J. F. A. Sawyer and the text of his lecture on Jesus films - Images of Christ in the Cinema - has been around in one form or another for practically as long as I can remember.

    So I was interested to see that the recent Review of Biblical Literature carried his reviews of not one, but two of the books that were written about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ - "Mel Gibson's Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications" edited by Zev Garber and "Mel Gibson's Bible: Religion, Popular Culture, and The Passion of the Christ by editors Timothy K. Beal and Tod Linafelt. Garber's book has been reviewed at SBL twice before, (first by Mark Goodacre and then by Timothy D. Finlay) and I think it's fair to say that Telford's review falls somewhere between the two.

    Incidentally, Telford's staff pages at Durham reveal that he has just signed a book contract with Blackwell's to combine edited versions of his "published and unpublished work on Jesus in film".

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    Tuesday, September 02, 2008

    New Book on Last Temptation

    Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars
    Thomas R. Lindlof
    University Press of Kentucky (July 1, 2008)
    Hardcover, 408 pages
    ISBN: (978)0813125170
    9.2 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches

    Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ was 20 years old last month and to mark the occasion Thomas R. Lindlof has published a book looking at the controversy that surrounded the release of the film. Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars looks to be a dense inspection of many aspects of the movie from filming in Morocco to the clashes with the religious right.

    Here's an extract from the publisher's blurb:
    Thomas R. Lindlof offers a comprehensive account of how this provocative film came to be made and how Universal Pictures and its parent company MCA became targets of the most intense, unremitting attacks ever mounted against a media company...The making of The Last Temptation of Christ caught evangelical Christians at a moment when they were suffering a crisis of confidence in their leadership. The religious right seized on the film as a way to rehabilitate its image and to mobilize ordinary citizens to attack liberalism in art and culture...Hollywood Under Siege draws upon interviews with many of the key figures—Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jack Valenti, Thomas P. Pollock, and Willem Dafoe—to explore the trajectory of the film from its conception to the subsequent epic controversy and beyond. Lindlof offers a fascinating dissection of a critical episode in the embryonic culture wars, illuminating the explosive effects of the clash between the interests of the media industry and the forces of social conservatism.
    It's certainly an interesting premise and it sounds like it will be quite a different prospect to the other recent book on Last Temptation - Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On. I'll be reviewing this latest book shortly.

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