• 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


    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    The Bible (2013) - Part 6*

    I've not written a great deal about The History Channel's miniseries The Bible yet mainly because it's not due to air in the UK until the autumn and no-one thought it would be worth sending me a preview DVD. By the time I was sent one, the airing was over, I had other things on and then reviewing every episode just threatens to become a big chore. I will be writing something about the series and the DVD release as a whole soon, but for now I'm working my way through them and writing about them when the mood takes me.

    Episode 6 is the first from the New Testament and the breakneck speed the series has whipped through the Old Testament in just 5 episodes (about three and a half hours) shows no sign of abating. In some ways this is necessary and those of us who would like to see things fleshed out a bit more are in a tiny majority; the series' viewing figures show that the producers got this just right. In other ways though it's a bit annoying. This episode starts moments before the annunciation and it's preceded by a long, drawn out and violent fictional example of the Romans collecting taxes complete with slow motion shots and scenes of extras clashing in the streets. It's the kind of scene that has happened a lot in the series, and it's beginning to infuriate. I can't deny that these scenes do add some historical context - whilst fictional they are nevertheless, in a sense, truthful. The problem is that whilst these scenes attempt to add that context they strangely also lack context themselves. The Romans violently extorting their taxes, but we don't know why. Sure, sometimes they probably just did, but the lack of motive, or back story, or explanation makes good history into bad drama. And for this scene to play out, at some length, whilst other key scenes, like the annunciation, or Jesus' birth, are done and dusted in a similar length of time is a bit frustrating. I did mean to start this post with a rant, but, well there you go.

    It's a particular shame because the annunciation is particularly good. In fact it's one of a handful of scenes where the creativity of the storytelling is at the fore. Because it's in the middle of this carnage, symbolising the extent to which the Jews are under Rome's thumb, that an angel appears to Mary. It's a bold move, given extra power by intercutting between multiple scenes. "He will be a saviour" the angel says, as a soldier chops a Nazarene just around the corner. So many of these films portray the moment as one of serenity, it's quite powerful. The intercutting is used a few times in this episode to great effect. Another hugely effective moment is in the temptation scene where Satan's promise of kingship is accompanied by alternating images of an enthroned Jesus receiving a golden laurel wreath and a beaten Jesus being tortured with a crown of thorns.

    At the same time I can't help wondering if this was inspired by the intercutting in The Passion of the Christ for example Mary seeing the adult Jesus stumble under the weight of a cross compared with footage of the boy Jesus stumbling up a couple of steps. I say this because the preview footage of the crucifixion scenes looked incredibly similar to those in Gibson's film and there's another element in this episode that also seems to be inspired by that particular Jesus movie - the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane.

    Here the temptation is the one at the start of Jesus' ministry. Jesus is fasting in the desert, kneeling on the ground in prayer when a snake weaves its way past him. The snake is, of course, Satan who quickly changes into human form. But the use of the snake is striking as is the fact that the human Satan does all the talking. And the human Satan also looks a lot like the one in Gibson's film - tall, hooded, bald-headed and with a thin face.

    Some of you probably thought I was about to say President Obama then, because this series will probably go down as the one that made Satan look like the current inhabitant of the White House. I don't want to go into this as some have done, suffice to say I think it's undeniable that the two look similar. It's no good the producers trying to distance themselves from this fact by wheeling out the actor in a different lighting, clothing and make-up and showing that in real life he looks nothing like the president. In the film he does. At the same time, however, the claim that this was a deliberate decision (even despite persistent and repeated denials by the filmmakers that it wasn't) seems a bit stupid. Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps it was someone's subconcious, but to suggest it was a deliberate political statement seems fairly silly. I'd love to know what actually happened, but no-one will ever really know. For some reason there was rather less hoo-har about the fact that they chose David Brent to play Herod Anipas.

    I was actually fairly surprised at how far through the gospels this episode got, ending with Jesus' calling of Peter. I quite liked this portrayal actually. It had its faults, but it was a fairly original take. I liked the image of Jesus wade through the water to get to the boat, the idea of him dipping his hand into the water, the shot of him from below the waves (a fish eyes' view?) and the final pan around an astonished Peter's boat, intercut with the execution of John the Baptist.

    And as a watch that final moment I'm reminded of some of the things this production does really well. There are some great images - some of those of the magi are actually pretty staggering, CGI or not. The music is really emotive, memorable and hasn't yet annoyed me. I'm not saying I'd complain complain if they found another theme to weave in here or their, but overall it seems to strike the right, um, note. Where things have been a let down in general is the dialogue and the delivery of that dialogue. I can't quite work out which is primarily to blame, but either way both are at fault.

    That's more or less it for this episode. Apologies if the writing is junk and littered with spelling mistakes, but it's one of those if-I-don't-do-it-now-(badly)-it'll-never-get-done-at-all thingsand there have been a lot of those over the last two years.

    *Yes sorry it's going to be confusing, isn't it, that the show aired as five double episodes, but the DVD/Blu-ray has 10 single episodes. Here's a simple trick if only saw it on telly and you're easily confused: take my episode number and divide it by two. It's a miracle!


    Monday, May 27, 2013

    The Kingdom of Israel: Part 1

    I'm trying to write a few comments on the key films about the Kingdom of Israel. In some ways it's fewer films than one might think - the kingdom starts with Saul, splits three kings later, and both the separate parts peter out. In terms of films there are very few films that pick the story up after the end of Solomon's rule. But on the other hand there have been a lot of films about David. Not as many as Moses and Jesus, but certainly too many to cover all of in detail in a briefing overview like this.

    I think I'll take them in chronological order as that allows me to treat the separate parts of the story individually and where one production covers more than one part of the story (such as this year's The Bible) I can deal with the specific parts as they come up. Well I'll try it like that and see where it gets me.

    The Start of the New Kingdom
    Living Bible: Samuel, A Dedicated Man (1958), Il Messia (1975), One Night With the King (2006), The Bible (2013)

    The Rise of David
    David and Goliath (1908), Saul and David (1909), David and Saul (1911), Death of Saul (1913), Living Bible: David, A Young Hero (1958), David and Goliath (1960), Saul and David (1968), Story of David (1976), Greatest Heroes of the Bible: David and Goliath (1978), King David (1985), Testament: David and Saul (1996), Kings (2009), The Bible (2013).

    David the King
    David and Bathsheba (1951), Living Bible: David, A King of Israel (1958), Story of David (1976), King David (1985), The Bible Collection: David (1997), The Bible (2013).

    Solomon the King
    La Reine de Saba (1913), Living Bible: Solomon, A Man of Wisdom (1958), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Judgement of Solomon (1978), The Bible Collection: Solomon (1997).

    The Divided Kingdom
    Athaliah, Queen of Judah (1910), Green Pastures (1936), Sins of Jezebel (1953), Living Christ Series (1951), Living Bible: Elijah a Fearless Prophet (1958), Testament: Elijah (1996), Testament: Jonah (1996)

    The Fall of Judah
    Judith of Bethulia (1913), The Bible Collection: Jeremiah (1998), The Bible (2013)

    I'm aware that I've left some out, not least the various other Judith films I've discussed recently, various peplum Goliath films, a few other silents, the odd cartoon, and a few very amateur projects. Nevertheless, this isn't a bad list, and I suspect I'll skip a few on this list for the sake of being something of significance about the others. Still, that's about 30 depending on whether you count different episodes of things like The Living Bible (1958) and The Bible (2013) separately, or just as one series together.

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    Monday, May 13, 2013

    Judith in Film

    Photo from Judith et Holopherne (1909)
    Having done a series on Judith films at the start of the year, I realise I never actually wrote a piece on the eponymous heroine herself, so here I want to draw together my thoughts on some of those films with a particular focus on what they say about Judith herself.

    The Bible emerged out of patriarchal culture and so I'm not sure which is more remarkable: Is it that there are so few women portrayed as heroes and leading characters, or that there are so many relative to the male dominated culture. Either way, the cinema in general does not suggest things have moved on a great deal further. A brief look at the top ten grossing films from last year shows 5 that had a clear single lead male figure, one featuring an ensemble cast of 8 only one of whom was female, one that might be considered to have a male and female lead, leaving only 2 that had a woman as the lead character - just one more than the number starring CGI animals.

    If the deuterocanonical books of the Bible are included then only 3 carry a woman's name - Ruth, Deborah and Judith. Hardly a surprise then that cinema has only a paltry offering of films about these three characters. Ruth at least has a 60s epic, a fine animated version and a 90s art film to her credit, Deborah has almost nothing. Judith however has passed out of fashion, despite being the subject of what could arguably be called the first real Biblical Epic - Judith of Bethulia (1913).

    By that stage she had already starred in at least three early silents. First up was the Italian offering Giuditta e Oloferne, perhaps dating from as early as 1906. French and British versions of the story followed in 1909 and 1912 respectively.

    One thing that is particularly interesting about these portrayals is the way they weaken Judith's character. Several of the films about here show her as hesitating before finally killing Holofernes. This may be due to a number of factors. Firstly, it makes better drama. There's tension as to whether she will manage it in time, her emotional conflict, the possibility of love - all of which absent from the biblical account all offer audiences a little bit more. Secondly, this also allows God to explicitly sanction what it is Judith is to do. This is not just her idea, but God's commands, which not only makes Judith more sympathetic, but also makes the idea of killing for a good cause a little more palatable. It's perhaps notable that there were 4 about Judith killing in a good cause, in the eight years before, what was then, the most terrible war the world had ever known.

    But lastly it also weakens Judith's character. Even today society is a bit squeamish about women assassins. They do occasionally make popular entertainment (such as last year's BBC series Hunted or Kill Bill) but various armies are still adapting to the changes, and when you consider how many male movie roles involve a lot of killing the success of The Hunger Games does little to disprove the theory that society accepts that women and men have an equal role as killers.

    So Giuditta e Oloferne provides an angel to really let both Judith and the audience that this IS was God wants her to do. This contrasts most strongly with the biblical account where notably God is silent. Judith seems to believe that God is with her, but even she doesn't try and claim that he had specifically told her to take this course of action. Gaumont's Judith et Holopherne is less explicit though still shows Judith praying before she strikes, but Griffith's film goes even further showing her indecision to be rooted in her love for the Assyrian general. Not only has she become an indecisive woman, but she is unable to meet a powerful man without falling in love with him. 1959's Italian film Giuditta e Oloferne aka Head of a Tyrant takes this remoulding of Judoth's image still further. Not only does she fall for the tyrant in question, but she also performs an erotic dance for him. Whilst the Bible is clear that she possesses a certain allure, this sexualising of her demeans the proto-feminist character of the Bible.

    It's refreshing, then to see a recent depiction of this story reverse this trend. Whilst the bedroom scene is still undoubtedly sexual, it is clearly Judith who is on top (signified literally at the moment of execution). Holofernes is shown as weak, and the actor's youth and demeanour portray a vulnerability. Judith by contrast is in control. Holofernes, as per the Bible, is slave to the whims of his sexual desires, Judith is active, prowling around the bedchamber making preparations whilst Holofernes lies idly by playing with the sword that will soon remove his head.

    Despite various films' attempts to water down Judith's proactive and aggressive personality, what they cannot get away from is this: the Judith story is essentially about a bloody, brutal and mendacious execution.


    Friday, May 03, 2013

    Ishmael in Film - Part 3

    The Ishmael of the Hebrew Bible is essentially a passive character acted upon by Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, but never an active initiator. This has resulted in his appearance in film roles being rather limited: no modern filmmaker has taken the sparse details of Ishmael's life from the Bible and used them as a starting point for a more creative/fictional/midrashic telling of his story, either as a leading role in his own right, or as a more significant character within the story of Abraham or Isaac. As a result Ishmael's appearances tend to be bland unimaginative and, as in the text, he is very much a character who is acted upon, little more than a moving prop.

    This was not always the case. In 1912 Pathé released two reels (perhaps with the intention of distributors showing them together) Agar e Ismaël and Le Sacrifice d'Ismaël by Henri Andréani. Both films featured Ishmael in the title, even if the short running lengths prevented any complex characterisation.

    Perhaps the most intriguing portrayal was in Huston's 1966 film The Bible. Ishmael, still a boy, desecrates a sacred ceremony marking Isaac's weaning. Sarah is appalled watching Ishmael snatch, toss, smash and bury the ceremonial doll, which is, presumably, Isaac's effigy. Sarah views this as a portent of the boys' future relationship, and Ishmael's desire to forcibly assert his authority over his younger brother. To the viewer this appears as simply childish play in an inappropriate context; the result of over exuberance, or perhaps bad parenting. Abraham, however, seems unsure not only torn by his love of his son and the complaints of his wife, he is perhaps as concerned by Ishmael's willingness to stray outside of the accepted religious ceremonial norms. God's voice-over assures him that he need not worry about Ishmael's fate, but also raises the question as to whether Ishmael would have been quite such a willing participant in Abraham's later "test of faith".

    One consistent feature about the Isaac episodes is the negative portrayal of Sarai/Sarah. Whilst some of this is derived from the text itself, few films seek to understand Sarah, let along sympathise with her. Indeed most films depict her in an even poorer light than the texts, showing her treating Hagar harshly, (for example carrying heavy loads even when very heavily pregnant). The portrayal of Hagar is often similarly unsympathetic. Whereas the text says only that she "despised" Sarai, several films show her criticising Sarai to her face for being barren. The intention here consistently seems to be to portray Abraham as decent, sympathetic and essentially good. Unfortunately given that he would have been her social superior. He comes across as weak and controlled by Sarah, rather than the master of his own destiny. The consistently shrewish portrayals of Sarah are bolstered by many films using a voice-over to inform the audience that God has also reassured Abraham that he is making the correct decision.

    The efforts to beatify Abraham also extend to the portrayal of Ishmael's conception. Almost universally this is depicted as Sarah's suggestion. Indeed the only film to show any flicker of interest from Abraham at the prospect of having sex with Hagar is the irreverent comedy The Real Old Testament (2003) where he feebly tries to shroud his glee at the very prospect. The 2013 miniseries The Bible sexualises Hagar still further by not only choosing an actress with "model looks", but also dwelling on her naked back as she lingers in the tent after conception, watching Abraham walk away unmoved by what has happened.

    At this point in the biblical story, Hagar runs away, meets an angel/God in the desert and returns with prophetic words about his future ringing in her ears (Gen 16:6b-14). The similarities between this (Yahwist) account and that in Gen 21:14-19 (Elohist) have meant that the majority of films featuring Ishmael have only included one or the other, sometimes harmonising the two. The one exception is Abraham (1994), the longest portrayal of the Abraham story.

    Ishmael's early days are captured in a variety of ways, in some films Sarai takes to the new addition to the family, whereas in other there is enmity from the start. Yet it's perhaps the 1994 film that is most interesting here as Sarai and Abram coo and delight in their son while a still recovering Hagar has to watch from a distance.

    Such nuance is however generally absent from the later scenes featuring Ishmael, indeed it is only the Abraham entry in the Testament: The Bible in Animation series where he is given a proper line. There are a few hints of his prowess with the bow (Gen 21:20) in Abraham (1994) and The Bible (2013), but, aside from the incident in the Huston film, Ishmael only needs exist for Sarah's anger to be kindled.To that end it's perhaps not surprising that only one film, In the Beginning, (2000) shows Ishmael's appearance at his father's death bed (pictured above). It is clear from his arrival at the head of a group of horsemen that the angel's words about his prosperity are already coming to pass.

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