• 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


    Sunday, December 18, 2011

    Nativity Scenes Revisited - Part 2:
    Life and Passion of Jesus Christ

    Having started with Pasolini's nativity scene a few days ago, I thought we'd go back to the beginning and look at The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. My kids have watched silent films before, mainly Buster Keaton, so it wasn't so much of an education. That said the real advantage for them of watching this film was that it kind of predates intertitles, or rather it still has title cards, but not the cards which tell you what the characters are saying. In many ways this is very good for young kids who know the story, but wouldn't necessarily grasp the dialogue, and it helps me talk get used to the idea of interpreting film, and thinking about what they watch.

    The other thing it gave me the chance to talk to them about was the fact that moving images are in fact a series of still images. I didn't go too far with this one, but as Nina asked some very interesting questions about the black and white to colour process here, it was a good chance to talk about hand colouring and how laborious that was because it was frame by frame and so on.

    To my mind it"s still rather unclear about which parts of this film emerged when. In the early days the content of this film wasn't fixed in the way that is universal today. There was a catalogue of the available tableaux (scenes) that distributors/theatre owners could choose from, so the content of this film was fluid from the start, which explains why there are so many versions of this film available today, in very different cuts, some scenes hand coloured by nuns, some not, and so on. And this film appears to have been doing the rounds for a long time. Parts of the material appear to date from the nineteenth century, one widely available version of the film with a few sound effects dates from 1933 (I seem to recall. Don't quote me on that).

    One of the reasons I mention that is because whilst the date of this film is usually cited as around 1905 (give or take a few years) some of the techniques are quite advanced. Take for example the faded in appearance of the angel to Mary. My knowledge of early techniques is limited to things like double exposures, shielding and so on, but I don't know how exactly they get the angel to fade in so smoothly. Feel free to fill me in below!

    Likewise when the wise men (who have previously been filmed using a blue filter) arrive in the stable (hand coloured), there is a certain amount of camera panning here (very rare in its day, perhaps one of the earliest example?) and for a while it's unclear how the two colour styles are going to resolved. In the end the right hand side of the screen is filtered blue whilst the coloured characters against the black and white background are on the left. It's an ugly shot, but it's fascinating seeing the filmmakers wrestle with these questions, develop processes, and develop solutions, even if they are not entirely satisfactory a hundred years later. It breaks our visual code, but was, in a way, part of creating such a visual code to begin with.

    I was also reminded in watching these scenes about something I've been meaning to say since seeing this film in a proper cinema a couple of years ago: Pathé have placed their logo on a number of the film's sets. I'm not sure whether this was merely crass advertising, or some form of early copyright (meaning that either the film, or the sets could be easily identified in case someone tried to use them without permission), but it seems Incredibly crass here. Less noticeable on the small screen, but certainly obtrusive when seen in a cinema,

    I mentioned a few years back how this film misses out the innkeeper, and this scene retains a good deal of interest. For one thing when a couple with a donkey arrive on the scene right at the start many will expect that they are Mary and Joseph, but in fact they are just two of the extras who disappear off screen moments later. The arrival of the real Mary and Joseph is heralded by the clearing of the set, but their arrival on foot strikes a real contrast with the bedonkeyed couple that have preceded them. It also adds a sense of unease. Is that Mary and Joseph or just someone else?

    There's also a nice piece of paralleling between the shepherd scene and the Ascension. Both feature a horizontally split screen to reveal heaven above and earth below, and whereas in this scene the good news is coming from heaven, later the subject of that good news will be making the return trip.


    Monday, December 12, 2011

    Nativity Scenes Revisited - Part 1:
    Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo

    I thought a good way to resurrect this blog would be to revisit some of the film portrayals of the Nativity story in the run up to Christmas. It's a good way to attempt to ensure that the kids don't get so focussed on the fat guy in the red suit that they forget about why we celebrate Christmas in the first place.

    In many ways Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) is not an obvious place to start with a 3 year old and a 5 year old, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like an interesting idea. Firstly I occasionally hear some of my friends complain that all their kids ever watch is cartoons. That's always seemed a shame to me, so we've always tried to give them a mix of cartoons/CGI with films with people. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Singin' in the Rain (1952) have long been favourites and there are plenty of others.

    Secondly, I also want to broaden their horizons so they are not just limited to Anglo-American fare. Studio Ghibli is a great place to start, and the more I thought about it the more I could see Pasolini's film as being another easy access point. After all they are already familiar with the Nativity story, and this part of the film has relatively little dialogue. As it happens Nina has all kinds of snippets of language under her belt that are unknown to me: just the other day she was saying hello in Romanian or Albanian (she wasn't quite sure which) that she had picked up from a Romanian/ Albanian friend at school.

    There's a third reason as well that Il Vangelo is good place to start. Most images of the nativity picture it rather laviously. Mary wears royal blue and salmon pink robes, the wise men are dressed as kings, even the shepherds are relatively handsome. Pasolini cuts his images from a more basic fabric. His wise men - clearly rich due to their substantial entourages - are ordinary looking. They have time weathered faces and their dress is - compared to their rivals from other films - relatively threadbare. When they bring their gifts they are not conveniently smelted lumps of gold nicely packaged in a decorative case, they are a selection of jugs and goblets held in a blanket (I have Nina to thank for drawing my attention to that).

    Whilst there are many anachronisms in Pasolini's images, clothes and backgrounds, his locating of the story primarily in a peasant culture, in a poorer, less luxurious age is quite striking, and a nice antidote to the typical religious Christmas card image.

    Aside from the educational advantages that Pasolini's film provides, it's also just a great piece of filmmaking. One of my favourite moments in all cinema is the silent arrival of the magi accompanied by the haunting sounds of Odetta's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child". It's remarkably moving and poignant and captures the holiness and spirituality of the moment, whilst simultaneously highlighting the relative loneliness of Jesus' birth and calling compared to most these days.

    The other major segment of this part of the film is, of course, the annunciation. This is also simply wonderful. The opening dialogue-free scenes convey far more in their close-ups and images than most films with dialogue. Mary has, presumably, just told Joseph of her pregnancy and is at a loss for any further explanation. Joseph is similarly speechless. When the angel appears in a dream there are no flashing lights, just a girl in a white dress against a toned down background sound. The reconciliation is similarly wordless. In a sense little has changed - neither can find the words to express what is going on. Yet clearly, in another sense everything has changed. Margherita Caruso (Mary) allows the corners of her mouth to flicker the smallest bit at Joseph's return, and then Pasolini makes us wait for what feels like an age before allowing her a proper smile. The delay triggers a far greater emotional response than such a flicker of happiness would normally provide.

    Around these two scenes we get Herod and his cronies, again ordinary looking, but with a nicely underplayed hint of the sinister, and the girl angel appearing again to Joseph and the magi to warn them of the impending attack from Herod. The later is again wordless. The angel stands in their path, looks in one direction and then leas them in another.

    The gamble worked. The kids enjoyed it, even the three year old Digory managed sat relatively engrossed, and Nina declared at the end "I like watching Italian film". As a lover of Pasolini and Rossellini's neo-realist cinema I can't wait until she can read well enough to be able to introduce her to some more.

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