• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    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.



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