• 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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    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.



    • At 9:42 pm, June 04, 2013, Blogger Jenny said…

      When I read Judith years ago, I did get the impression that she was a no-nonsense, determined, and extremely chaste woman. She's often compared to Esther, as knowing what she aught to do even though God doesn't directly tell her. It definitely sounds like Hollywood was forcing her to fit popular stereotypes of the time.

    • At 10:28 pm, June 16, 2013, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for that Jenny. I really like the Judith character.



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