• 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


    Tuesday, December 24, 2013

    Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith

    It's long been the policy of this blog to try and focus on a film's positives, rather than picking apart their many negatives. After all, with a genre like this, it would be rather like shooting fish in a barrel.

    It's an approach that is sorely tested sometimes so it's fortunate for fans of Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979) that it's also Christmas, the spirit of good cheer. So please don't remotely take the overall tone of what follows as any kind of endorsement.

    So let me get my main criticism out of the way first of all: it's a very odd decision to make a Nativity film which is around two and a half hours long and then to cram in everything bar the annunciation into the last 18 minutes. Whilst this isn't quite the longest of the film's about Jesus' birth (that honour belongs to Ermano Olmi's Cammina, Cammina at 152 minutes, it shouldn't end feeling rushed.

    The most interesting aspect of the film is the way it prefigures key events in Jesus' life by showing similar events happening to his ancestors. (Spoilers) The most significant of these is the crucifixion of Mary's father Joachim after critising King Herod to a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Herod himself in disguise (remember, it's Christmas). There's an obvious link between Joachim's death and that of his grandson, but it also shows Mary watching the death of a key male relative. Given Joachim's opposition to violent resistance against Herod and the Romans, his death also seems unjustified, the death of a man of peace on a cross.

    This tendency pops up in other places too. Shortly after his death Mary is visiting Joachim's grave when the angel appears to her, but their conversation is prefacced by the words "Woman why area you crying" - the words Jesus speaks to another Mary at the tomb. Elsewhere Mary prays "into your hands I commit my soul", Joseph receives a flogging, and when he is released from the flogging post there is a brief Pieta.  (End spoilers)

    The other aspect of the film that caught my attention is the way Mary communicates her vision to Joseph. Instead of keeping it to herself until she is starting to show, she tells him about the vision immediately, meaning Joseph's initial concern is for Mary's sanity rather than her unfaithfulness, and it sheds an interesting light on Joseph's plans to "break off the engagement quietly".

    Visually the choice of sets is really interesting. Having seen Matera and Ouarzazate used so often for biblical locations, it was interesting to see a different approach, the use of caves, particulalrly in close proximity to built housing gave the film a really different feel. The odd use of white, if not blond, actors, whilst clearly erroneous, also added to a nostalgic innocence that permeates the film. Unfortunately it also means that the film just feels far too cheesy in places, even at Christmas.


    Tuesday, December 10, 2013

    Joseph, King of Dreams (2000)

    Back in 1998, The Prince of Egypt was a surprise hit, not only turning in a profit, but launching a whole new animated studio to challenge the dominance of Disney. Hardly surprising, then, that two years later Dreamworks sought to cash in on their successful début by adding another film in the series, Joseph, King of Dreams.

    At the time the term "prequel" was on the ascendency - Star Wars: The Phantom Menance was released just a year earlier. The fledging studio must have considered it made good sense. Having escaped from Egypt the story of the former Hebrew slaves is far less suitable for a children's film - 40 years in the desert lacks dramatic promise and Joshua's conquest of Canaan could hardly be classified as kiddie friendly. The Joseph story however was not only more suitable, but allowed the studio to rework some of what made the original film succeed, with the promise of more moving hieroglyphics and soaring, dramatic architecture.

    Sadly, it was an unmitigated disaster. Joseph falls well short of both the quality and the entertainment of its predecessor. Furthermore, far from offering an additional, tidy, return, the film was released straight to video - still the only Dreamworks film to carry that particular stigma.

    There are three main reasons why Joseph fails. Firstly, as if anticipating a lesser return, Dreamworks clearly cut corners. Whilst both Ben Affleck and Mark Hamill are relatively big names, the rest of the cast was largely unknown. In comparison Prince of Egypt boasted at least ten major stars. And whilst much of the animation is of a similar, if not better, standard, one or two of the dreams are rendered so poorly that they cast a shadow over the rest of the film. History has not been kind to turn of the century CGI, but even at the time Pharaoh's cows would give anyone nightmares. Corner cutting such as this isn't necessarily that obvious, but it often has the effect of permeating through a whole film, leaving it flat without any one thing clearly being out of place.

    Ironically, the film's second major problem derives from those very aspects of Prince of Egypt which won it such acclaim. Again we have scenes of wall paintings coming to life and these are complemented nicely by some excellent early dream sequences. The problem is that these aspects were so striking and notable in the original movie that, here, they just feel derivative and unoriginal. There's a reason most magicians don't do their tricks more than once to the same audience: it's easier to reproduce a really good trick than it is to reproduce the experience of seeing it for the first time.

    Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film, though, is the music. I read a quote recently that attributed 70% of film to the music. Whilst the occasional song in Prince of Egypt is a little mawkish, generally the music is pretty strong - the opening scenes in particular. Here almost all of the songs are dreary, forgettable, sub-par pop ballads, performed with very little heart or invention. It drags the film down again and again and leaves it bereft of soaring high points.

    Which isn't too say it's all bad. Most of the animation is very good: indeed, one or two of the pieces of it are stunning. The Van Gogh inspired sequences with the sunflowers are particularly impressive. The characterisation is also fairly strong. Joseph's (voiced by Ben Affleck's) transition from spoilt brat to mature and forgiving man is well worked, relying on both a process and a epiphany or sorts.

    It's also good to see an animated family film that doesn't have to resort to cute animals or fart jokes. Whilst Joseph has it's faults, there's never a moment that could have been improved by the simple addition of a cat with a quirky sense of humour. And if there is, perhaps, one too many montage it's almost forgiveable given the sleek efficiency with which they are executed. The opening song - miracle child is a particularly good example.

    So whilst King of Dreams is no match for Prince of Egypt, it's a lot better than some of the films that Dreamworks have turned out subsequently. Ultimately, though, it's biggest problem is that it leaves you wishing you had watched the Moses film instead.

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