• 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, April 29, 2012

    Scene Comparion - Pentecost

    My small group is looking at Acts at the moment and last week there was a bit of a mix up over who was doing what and so seeing as we were at my house I suggested watching the passage fr the day (Acts 2) in some different film versions.

    Whilst there are quite a few film versions of a selection of stories from Acts a good number of them are Paul biopics and so are only really interested in Acts from the stoning of Stephen onwards. So films such as Paul the Emissary, Damascus, The Bible Collection's Paul and even, surprisingly, Peter and Paul all exclude this incident.There are however a number of films that do cover these events and here are some comments on a few of them.

    Living Bible: Acts of the Apostles (1957)

    If ever you want a stiff, very literal rendering of a story played out by men wearing tea towels, then  The Living Bible comes up trumps every time. The budgetary limitations area always obvious so for the start of Acts the Ascension is narrated and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire all occur off screen. The rest of the scene is dull in the extreme.

    Power of the Resurrection (1958)
    Peter is stuck in jail with a young Christian who is scared and so he tells the boy how he met Jesus and gained the courage he now has. So the retelling of Peter's life climaxes with Pentecost. It's strange, then, that there's no tongues of fire scene here either. We do see Annas and Caiaphas in the crowd as Peter preaches. The most interesting feature of this film, for me, is that both the younger and the older Peter are played by Richard Kiley, who would play another disciple turned writer Matthew in the Visual Bible's Matthew. What's most interesting is comparing how the film makers thought Kiley would look like as an old man, and how he actually does look. Had I not seen the latter production, I would have thought it a reasonably credible piece of make-up, but as things stand it looks more than a little naïve.

    Atti degli Apostoli (1969 - pictured)
    Overall I think Rossellini's film is my favourite of those that deal with Acts, partly because while it is still an obviously low budget piece it makes that into a virtue, rather than a constantly distracting flaw, but then I'm a big fan of Rossellini in general.

    Again there are no tongues of fire, but the sky does momentarily go dark red before the disciples burst out into the public square. It's a wonderful moment, partly because it's been preceeded by a long and rather dry exposition of the story's cultural and historical context (from one Roman to another), which both give a better feel for that context but also because the disciples sudden arrival on the scene forms a striking contrast with the more stoic Romans. Furthermore there is something ambiguous about the moment. One the one hand it evokes Joel's prophecy about the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood, but on the other the disciples' absence from the moment distances them from it, as if to break the causal link. 

    My favourite line in this story has always been Peter's "they're not drunk it's only nine o'clock in the morning: I remember laughing about that one as a ten year old at church. The majority of these films deliver it in a very po-faced and forced fashion. Here, Peter dismissively chucks it out over his shoulder as he marches through the crowd. It's reminiscent of Pasolini's Jesus making terse theological or political statements over his shoulder as the disciples struggle to keep up.

    And then there's the climax, as Peter, the disciples and a bunch of keen to be new converts all rush in a state of high excitement to a watering hole outside the city. Are they ecstatic or just mad? Rossellini leaves it up to the viewer to interpret it. I imagine both interpretations happened at the time so it's nice to see this captured in the film and both sides thrown up for the viewer to pick over.

    Incidentally, did I ever mention that this film is available to view (albeit without subtitles) here?

    A.D. (1985)
    Just as the series intercuts the story of the early church with tales of the Romans here we get the first Pentecost intercut with the Romans leading an execution. And just as the series often brings both stories together at certain critical points, so it turns out that the man who is due to be executed and is subsequently rescued is a friend of Stephen and other early Christians.

    Inside meanwhile Mary seems to be taking a leading role within the early church - you don't have to interpret it that way but it seems to be the implication. On this occasion, Mary tells a story from Jesus' childhood. And then a very quiet wind starts up inside but someone notices it's not blowing outside. The effects look dated and the soppy looks on the disciples faces are rather comical, but Peter delivers his speech with real charisma, and it's probably the best delivery of that sermon of all of these clips.

    Visual Bible: Acts (1994)
    Whilst the special effect here will hardly have broken the bank it's actually very effective. In contrast to many of the other version - and my own prior visualisation - the moment of the Spirit's coming is initially very serene rather than ecstatic. Very little else works here though. Dean Jones' narration is more obtrusive than Richard Kiley's in Matthew, the word for word aspect feels very forces and
    James Brolin is just to handsome, clean cut and all-American to pass for Simon Peter. It's interesting comparing his charismatic proto-TV-politician with the hapless dimwit played by Gerrit Schoonhoven in the Matthew film.

    Where the forced literalism really doesn't work is during the crowd's lengthy response to what they are seeing, especially the various members of the crowd taking turns to recite a selection of the nations represented there. It wouldn't have been funnier if they had all done it together Life of Brian style ("Yes we're all individuals... from Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene.)

    St Peter (2005)
    The start of this film is so awful I've never been able to get past the first quarter of an hour or so, and the relevant scene here crops up about 35 minutes in. It's certainly one of the more interesting and creative explorations of the scene. The outpouring of the spirit occurs just at the very moment that the disciples are beginning to realise that language might be a barrier to the spread of the gospel.

    Inside the moment is strikingly depicted with flames shooting up in the arches behind Peter and the other apostles. Outside however a shock-wave seems to strike everyone in sight. In contrast with the other versions Peter says very little of the sermon from Acts. So effectively this take on the story emphasises experience over explanations.

    The scene ends on a rather sour note however. A Roman soldier - the very one who was present at the death of Jesus - wants to be baptised as well, but Peter refuses. I'm interested to see how this pans out: I have a hunch the soldier in question may appear later in the film.

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    Saturday, April 21, 2012

    A Bit More on The Miracle Maker

    I've written about The Miracle Maker many times before, most commonly around Easter when I find myself watching it perhaps with my children, or perhaps just with others. This year we sat down to watch it as a family and I had a number of new thoughts about it that I hadn't really considered before. One of the things that demonstrates the film's quality is that despite multiple viewings over the years I still find myself noticing new things about it each time.

    Some of the things I found most striking this time around occurred in the opening minutes. In fact the first is the first thing we see as the film starts - the story is dated as "Year 90 of the Roman occupation". The significance of this is that it places the film right away not in our own time frame - viewers of the film unaware that Jesus' ministry was around 30 AD will be none the wiser - but in terms that would have been very resonant in Jesus' day. Straight away it tells us that this is the story about a man, and a people, living under occupation and subjugation. Not just from their own lifetimes but from that of their grandparents and great-grandparents. And the hopes for a messiah are nudged a little into the limelight.

    Our first real glimpse of Jesus is as his overseer is about to strike Mary Magdalene. Jesus steps in, parries the man's blow and saves Mary from being struck. This is a deft combination of two leading aspects of Jesus that the film is keen to emphasise: his strength and his compassion.

    Having begun his ministry Jesus heads to the Jordan to be baptised. But rather than be baptised by John, Jesus crouches down and baptises himself. The early church is often accused of being rather embarrassed by Jesus' baptism by John. In Mark's Gospel it's a straightforward case of John baptising Jesus. Matthew has John question Jesus' request: surely this is inconceivable. By the time the fourth gospel is written Jesus is no longer baptised by John. Whether or not it's accurate to describe this as the early church being embarrassed by the incident, it's interesting that the film portrays things as somewhere between Matthew's version and John's. Jesus still gets baptised, but it's not John who does it.

    Having returned from his post-baptism temptation in the desert Jesus comes out and meets up with his old friend Lazarus. Like much of the early part of this film this is dramatic fiction. What's interesting, though is that Lazarus seems to be attempting to tempt Jesus as well. His words are not suggestions of inappropriate miracles, or self-gotten gains, but simply to turn his back on his ministry and return to normal life. It's intriguing because temptation is often far more like that than the kind Jesus undergoes in the desert. Lazarus is Jesus' friend and doesn't realise what he is doing. The temptation is subtle, but then it so often is. 

    The climax of the first half of John's Gospel (and of the first half of many a Jesus film) is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Whilst this story is included, the climax of the first part of the film is another of the occasions when Jesus raises someone back to life - the daughter of Jairus. The switch fits neatly with the films desire to appeal to children, but it also fits its desire to be more inclusive to women. Not only is Tamar female, but also the woman who is healed in the interlocking episode. It's also the moment when Jairus, his wife and Tamar decide to follow Jesus, which I suppose raises the question for children of whether they will follow Jesus, something backed up in the film's closing scene.

    The lighting in this scene (pictured above) is really striking. I don't know a great deal about classic art, but it feels a bit like Caravaggio, though that probably exposes how little I know about that period/movement. That said it might also have been inspired by 19th century painting such as those by Carl Bloch, Gabriel Max and the Russian artist Ilya Repin. Given that the 3D scenes were created by the Russian teams of animators the latter might makes a good deal of sense. In any case it's beautifully lit and captures a certain painterly quality.

    The raising of Jairus's daughter is Jesus' greatest triumph, but he comes down with a bump. The scene that immediately follows depicts Jesus hearing about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Aside from the personal grief Jesus experiences, it's a painful reminder of what is to come for Jesus and in a sense it marks the start of the second half of the film, foreshadowing that which is to come. The first part has been about miracles, strength and compassion all three of which find their expression in raising Tamar to life. The second part will focus on Jesus' death.

    Given that this film was made to appeal to children, it obviously had to include Jesus saying "unless you become like a child you will not enter the kingdom of God". Here the film includes the full incident which begins with the disciples arguing about who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-37, though whereas Mark places the story in a house in Capernaum, the film locates it by a camp-fire on the road). Indeed, the argument amongst the disciples flares up whilst Jesus is picking up firewood. This accentuates one of the other key themes of the film, and particularly the second half: Jesus as a servant. It also echoes the incident from John's Gospel where Jesus washes the disciples' feet. In both cases the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest (John 13 c.f. with Luke 22) and in both cases Jesus responds in the opposite spirit by doing the work of a servant.

    The servant theme finds its fullest expression in Jesus' death as the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-55. One key hint to this is when Jesus appears before Herod and the film shows the tetrarch pull Jesus' beard. The man of strength and compassion, is now in need of someone to step in and defend him as he defended Mary Magdalene earlier in the film.