• 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


    Friday, June 29, 2012

    Song of Songs in Radio and Film

    BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting readings from Song of Songs juxtaposed with bits from Lamentations. The idea is to combine the most beautiful and erotic parts of the Biblical imagery with some of the most violent. I heard five minutes of it in the car at the weekend - somehow managing to catch what is probably the rudest part of Song of Songs - but liked the premise and the execution, and I'm hoping to listen to the rest soon via iPlayer.

    Coincidentally around the same time that I heard about this production I also heard about a film called Song of Songs (2005) starring Natalie Press (Bleak House, Red Road). It's rated very poorly on IMDb (4.5!) though The Observer's Philip French and The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw both seemed to like it. 2005's Edinburgh Film Festival catalogue described it like this:
    Devoutly religious Ruth returns from Israel to care for her dying mother, but when she tries to bring her estranged brother David back into the fold, in accordance with her mother's wishes, the result is a startling journey into the darkest realms of sexual obsession: a forbidden game under the guise of religious law. Dark, ambiguous and distinctly adult, this study of belief and desire, set in the cloistered world of London's Orthodox Jewish community, thoughtfully explores the links between faith and violence, denial and longing.
    Whilst words such as "dark" and "intense" seem to pop up in reviews of that film another film that takes a decent look at the book is at the other end of the scale. Keeping Mum, also released in 2005, is a comedy starring Rowan Atkinson and Dame Maggie Smith. It doesn't fare brilliantly at IMDb either (6.8), but I'm told by my friend (@lizzystevey) that it "has some beautiful scenes looking at the Song of Songs." I never saw it when it first came out, though was sorely tempted by the promise of Rowan Atkinson doing one of the things he does best - playing a vicar. I've ordered both films and may report back on them in due course.

    Neither of these is a straight take on Song of Songs, but then that's partly because the poetic books don't really lend themselves to a medim such as film that is dominated by narrative. What has happened is that films about Solomon have included little excerpts here and there, usually around the time the Queen of Sheba turns up (as in The Bible Collection's brief quotation). It's been a while since I saw Solomon and Sheba so I can't comment on how much Song of Songs is included in there, but I'm pretty sure it will be cited somewhere amongst the cheesy Hollywood blather. There were at least 2 silent films about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but the 1921 Fox film is now lost, and I suspect that my review of Pathé's 1913 La Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) would have mentioned it if Song of Songs had been cited in the intertitles.


    Thursday, June 07, 2012

    Roman Holiday and the Jubilee

    I can't think of a more perfect film to watch to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee than Roman Holiday. Released in 1953 the year of Queen Elizabeth's coronation it imagines the story of a young princess (Audrey Hepburn) who escapes her duty for a single day, enjoys a day of freedom and falls in love before realising her duty and returning to her life of regal service.

    The timing and therefore the parallels are more than coincidental. The thinnest possible veil is pulled between Hepburn's Princess Anne and Elizabeth II: Anne is younger, unmarried, and not from Britain, but how many other royal families have the Queen's English as their first language? Those parallels give extra meaning to the film's deep seated themes. Not only was our new queen stepping into a new life, with it's additional duties, responsibilities and obligations, but also the shock of the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII just 15 years before still hangs in the background creating the plot's central tension: will she return or won't she?

    Hepburn is most fondly remember for Breakfast at Tiffany's; Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird and director William Wyler for Ben Hur, but I think all three do far better work here. The final scene alone is a masterful piece of subtle acting telling a story that no-one else in the room understands. Quiet, dignified and understated it belies the raw and painful emotions that rage under the surface.

    It's hard to imagine a film like this would be made today. Not only is Edward's abdication a distant memory, but the idea that the only thing in life that matters is 'being true to yourself' is so deeply embedded now that a character rejecting that for the sake of her duty just wouldn't wash. But it's that same dedication and self-sacrifice that Queen Elizabeth has given for the last 60 years, and why she is so widely admired, something grout back to me watching footage of her carrying on with her obligations throughout the Jubilee celebrations as if it wasn't pouring with rain, or her husband wasn't seriously ill in hospital.

    I can't help but imagine what might have become of Hepburn's Princess Anne. When, and if, she became queen; if she married; if she ever had a day that matched one; if, in some imaginary kingdom a lot like Britain, she too is celebrating 60 years, an old grandmother smiling and nodding to give approval to members of the public and 'stars' she will never quite see the appeal of or understand. And whilst we're left with the image of Peck meandering down a grand, spectacular, but empty hall, the perfect image of the life the princess has re-adopted, I wish that more films about 'royalty' conveyed even a fraction of that captured in that long lonely walk.