• 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


    Monday, February 18, 2013

    Giuditta e Oloferne (1906/1908)

    The BFI Archive print of the film starts with an introduction
    "The Italian film. From 1908 to 1914 Italy played an important role in film history with her classico-historical spectacles. The success of Quo Vadis (1911) as well as of the French Queen Elizabeth definitely established the long film and brought cinema new esteem"
    I'm not sure at what stage these notes were added, but they go on to show some elements of analysis. "Insistence on architecture and gesticulation were constants".

    The film begins with people challenging the priests to do something about the siege - children are dying. Judith arrives with her entourage and is dressed very much like a suffragette. It would be a mistake to assume this is a deliberate association on behalf of the filmmakers. Italian women didn't gain the vote until 1946 and it's more likely that the style of dress I associate with the suffragette movement is merely typical of pre-war European fashion. Nevertheless given the story's political angle and it's radically divergent portrayal of a woman, it's an association that I suspect many other viewers would make.

    Certainly the expensive looking dress and the entourage emphasise that Judith is relatively wealthy and in high standing in her community. It's while Judith is doing her make-up at home that the angel appears to her with a sword to signify the deed she is being commissioned to carry out. There's no angel in the text of course so this addition strengthens the idea that this was God's idea.

    Judith and her handmaiden leave the camp and are quickly captured by some Assyrian soldiers. They bring the pair into the court and Holofernes is instantly smitten. Having been making merry with his court and cavorting with some scantily clad servant girls, he sends out the whole court upon Judith's arrival. Holofernes starts to seduce Judith. Judith stands but the angel appears again and orders her down. This again indicates Judith's mission is God-ordained circumventing any questions about the morality of her actions.

    The next scene takes place in the adjoining room where once again Holofernes has company (including some blacked-up servants), only this time Judith drinks. He then takes her to his bedroom where she continues to resist his sexual advances. Eventually Holofernes passes out but Judith is reluctant to kill him. Suddenly the angel appears again, specifically gesturing that she should cut off his head and so eventually she does, drawing the curtain around Holofernes' bed before popping his severed head into a bag and leaving.

    The final scene (pictured above) depicts Judith returning home and pulling out Holofernes' head before the assembled people to show their victory. The people of Bethulia bow.

    The repeated addition of the angel, even urging her to kill Holofernes is strongly interpretative, and is particularly interesting for those who like me are intrigued by the way Christian art often distorts the biblical text in order to rationalise such awkwardly violent acts seemingly at God's command. For protestants this story is not so problemmatic as they give the "apocrypha" much less authority, but what's interesting is that similar tactics are used throughout the history of filmmaking for stories from the universally accepted canon.

    The plot summary provided by the organisers of the "Ancient World in Silent Cinema II" event gave the film the following synopsis:
    Giuditta e Oloferne [Judith and Holopherne] (Italy, Mario Caserini, 1908) 6 mins. The Israelites, besieged in Bethulia, bemoan their fate. In Judith's palace, an angel appears and instructs her to help. Judith is led into the tent of the Assyrian leader Holophernes. He, much taken, orders everyone out including his protesting concubine. Judith is reluctant but, after the reappearance of the angle, submits to his embrace. Holophernes feats with his concubine and court. Judith enters and feigns pleasure. He leaads her to bed, but falls drunkenly asleep. The angel urges the reluctant Judith to kill him. Judith returns to the Israelites and shows them his head.

    The BFI also summarise it on their website:
    HISTORICAL. Apocryphal story of Judith who saves the Israelites by seducing and beheading the Assyrian leader Holofernes. "THE ITALIAN FILM. From 1908 to 1914 Italy... JUDITH AND HOLOPHERNES Produced by Cines-Roma. Biblical...insistence on architecture and gesticulation" (101) JUDITH AND HOLOPHERNE. Wolf logo. CINES (102) The Israelite people, soldiers and priests, besieged in Bethulia, bemoan their fate. Black slaves enter down steps followed by Judith, attendants and fanbearers wearing tights. All kneel (171). In Judith's palace: columns and curtains: the attendants bedeck Judith. They exit. A female angel appears, instructs Judith, vanishes, reappears and exits. Judith summons her handmaid and they leave (242). Four Assyrians with spears, bows and arrows in a rocky place: Judith and maid enter, show alarm and are led off held by their wrists (261). Holophernes holds court in a tent with his concubine, other women, guards, fanwavers and black slaves. Judith and maid are led in. Holophernes, much taken, orders everyone out including the protesting concubine. Alone, he takes Judith to the couch. She is reluctant but, after a word from the angel, submits to his embrace (318). In a circular tent, Holophernes feasts with his concubine and court. Judith enters, shows disgust but feigns pleasure. They embrace, drink and exit (390). In the previous tent the crowd enters. Holophernes drives them all out with a sword, embraces Judith, leads her to the bed, and falls drunkenly asleep. She observes him, laughs, picks up sword, hesitates. The angel urges her. She picks up sword again and, back to camera, uses it, turns holding head and sword, drops both, closes bed curtains, emerges wrapping the head in a cloth and exits (479). The Israelites are still wailing. Judith and her maid arrive with the bundle. Judith climbs steps and shows the head. All kneel (528ft). Note: Intertitles missing. First 101ft are a modern introduction. Length without this is 417ft. Also held: (205243A 425 ft, no titles, slightly better print) and 608423A (Joye Collection no.1907, 376ft, opening title and Cines logo but no intertitles, incomplete- ends when Judith leaves with her trophy).

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