• 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, February 27, 2015

    Leviathan (2014)

    This review contains mild SPOILERS throughout, though they are not significant enough to actually spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film who is, at least, familiar with the story of Job.

    It’s not often I drive 50 miles to go and see a film, so when my friend and I were greeted with the news that the screening of Leviathan we had travelled an hour to see had been postponed our disappointment was tempered just a little by a certain sense of irony. As it turned the cinema had been sent a copy of the immersive 2012 fishing documentary Leviathan rather than Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 drama of the same name.

    The mix-up however, only goes to show the enduring popularity of the leviathan metaphor and the resonance of the Bible’s book of Job. The story and the powerful imagery that accompanies it has long held appeal for writers and artists.

    Having finally got to see it, Zvyagintsev’s film did not disappoint. Whilst Leviathan may not ultimately have won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar&TM; it was amongst the nominees and caused a stir earlier in the year when it won the Golden Globe in the same week that criticism emerged from the Russian authorities. Bizarrely it failed to win Russia’s Golden Bear award for best film despite a mountain of international acclaim.

    The objections from the authorities - both from government officials and from the Orthodox church - are not hard to understand: Leviathan shows both in a negative light, complicit in the events which see Kolya's life spin out of control. It starts when the, seemingly corrupt , mayor uses a compulsory purchase order to turf Kolya off his land. Kolya's old army buddy shows up, offering legal expertise, but escalates the case and then sleeps with Lilya, Kolya's wife.

    Things continue along this downward trajectory, meaning comparisons with Job are never far away, but unlike his biblical counterpart, there is no Hollywood ending. The final scenes sees his house being demolished, mirroring the fact that the rest of his life is already in ruins.

    The leviathan of the film's title appears in numerous different guises. There are the more literal shots of a whale surfacing from the sea briefly as Lilya ponders her life. Then there is the huge skeleton that lies stranded on the beach, the seemingly invulnerable beast of God's speech proven to be mortal, nevertheless.

    Then on a more metaphorical level there is Kolya's battle with the impassive establishment that upholds the mayor and seals his own fate. The system that could be abused in the first place, the courts that rapidly fire off their judgements unmoved by Kolya's protests. Then there is the police who make their initial assumptions and fail to ever really challenge them, like Bildad and his friends only with handcuffs instead of words.

    Perhaps the most interesting appearance of the leviathan motif appears as Kolya's house is demolished. In perhaps the film's most visually memorable shot we see the mechanical digger ripping away the wall of Kolya's house shot from inside the house. As the digger's boom reaches up and the scoop arches in the air, it looks for a moment like a mechanical sea monster devouring it's prey, as indeed it is.

    Lastly there is the church who may not exactly aide and abet the mayor in his villainy, but certainly offer little resistance and, as the final shot reveals are the ultimate beneficiaries of the mayor's scheming. For a moment the film's final scene appears to offer some ambiguity. Periodically throughout the film the mayor has discussed the meaning of life and faith with his bishop and as the bishop leads a service in a beautiful church the mayor momentarily breaks his beatific pose to whisper to his son "God sees everything, son". Has the mayor somehow been transformed by his conversations with the Bishop? But the film's final shot, at the end of the service reveals that This new church has been built on the place where Kolya's house once stood, his drive way now replaced with a car park full of expensive SUVs.

    Yet the depiction of Christianity here is not uniformly negative, in contrast to his bishop, Kolya's local priest, Father Vasily, is one of the few characters still there for him at the end. Whilst Kolya is buying vodka to drown his sorrows, Vasily is buying bread for the poor and it’s in their subsequent conversation that direct mention of, and quotations from, Job are made. Seemingly out of the blue Vasily asks “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or throw a rope on its tongue?” (Job 41:1) and goes on to tell Kolya the story of Job. But it’s difficult to know what to make of Vasily’s version of events. I’m not sure I agree with his explanation that “In the end God took pity on him… and explained it to him clearly”, nor am I convinced that “Job resigned himself to his fate”. Yet the conversation forms a connection between the two men, indeed it’s the last time that anyone in the film speaks to Kolya with compassion and humanity.

    Whilst this part of Leviathan’s script means that, on a textual level, it is more biblical, its bleak images don’t quite carry the spiritual power of The Return. There, the images that stay with you are of a beautiful world, largely untouched by human hands. Here, for all the beauty of the shot of Kolya’s son crouched by the skeleton of a whale on the beach, it’s the human aspects of the images that stay with you - the crumbling buildings, the shabby-chic interiors and the beautiful church interior - a white-washed tomb if ever there was one. The imagery here reflects violence, death and decay, and from the moment Koyla strikes his son in one of the film’s opening scenes, there’s a sense of unease and foreboding about the violence that is waiting in the wings.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but this sense of violence brewing reminds me of the disturbing deaths of Job’s children in the book’s opening chapter. Whilst Job gets is ultimately rewarded with new children it seems unlikely that this would ever really have compensated him. Indeed it makes me realise one of the things that is most disturbing about the Book of Job is that one of its later editors thought his jarringly “happy ending” would paper over the deep theological cracks left by all the pain and suffering that his predecessor expressed so eloquently.

    All quotes are taken from an early version of the script and so may contain slight differences from the words spoken in the the film’s final cut.


    Saturday, February 21, 2015

    The Vikings and King of Kings

    I'm finally sitting down to watch 1958's The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas. It's notable for a number of reasons not least teaming up Douglas with Tony Curtis for the first time, two years ahead of Spartacus.

    But I was struck in the early scenes between this and another 60s Roman crucifixion film, Kings of Kings (1961). The thing that first caught my attention was the voice-over that sets the scene for the action and a quick check of IMDb confirmed my suspicion - like King of Kings the narator is Orson Welles. The voice-over comes to a close over the opening scene and here there is a further similarity with the Jesus film, the opening scene is of an invading army overpowering the locals.

    Then there's the importance of the special baby. In The Vikings it's the son of the Northumbrian queen and her Viking attacker rather than Jesus, but the son is sent away to leaving many to wait expectantly for his return.

    Given the wide range of openings to Jesus films - from Rossellini's trip back to the selection of King Saul to Jesus making crosses in Last Temptation - it's significant, I think, that King of Kings adopts this incredibly similar opening approach.

    And then there's the appearance of Frank Thring as a disreputable King (Aella here, Herod in Kings). He even sits his throne on the top of a little set of velvet steps. I think that's more coincidental and there aren't many other major similarities in the rest of the film. But it is significant that King of Kings takes The Vikings' introduction and basically reproduces it.

    Just a couple of other film links. Firstly there's a scene where Curtis sends his hawk to peck out Douglas' eyes. Being a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock I could help thinking of The Birds, still 5 years away, not least because this film also stars Janet Leigh who would go on to star in another early 60s Hitchcock film, Psycho.

    Lastly, there's a scene where Douglas is trying to rally round his men to set off on another mission. There's an awkward pause whilst Douglas earnestly scans the group looking for people to indicate their desire to join him. If it wasn't two years before it was released you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was influenced by another film as you waited for someone to stand defiantly and declare "I'm Sparatcus!"


    Sunday, February 15, 2015

    Earliest Remaining Bible Film Now Online
    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898)

    I'm currently reading David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film" and have been really interested, so far, by what I've read. Silent Bible films are one of the things I've discussed throughout the 9 year history of this blog going right back to some of my earliest posts in 2006. Those posts were spurred on by the discovery of a DVD on eBay of a couple of Jesus films, which purported to go right back to 1898 and 1900 respectively. Curiously though both seemed to contain scenes that I recognised from the 1902 film La vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, 1902).

    Dating that film is a difficult enough challenge. The earliest date for it seems to be 1902, but I've also heard 1905 and even 1908 cited (by Campbell & Pitts and Kinnard & Davis respectively) before. What I later learned was that Pathé used to put the various scenes together in a catalogue from which cinemas wishing to display them could pick and choose. The first tranche of scenes were released in 1902, but the catalogue was expanded over time with significant developments in 1905 and 1908. Indeed according to Kinnard and Davis, another version of this film emerged in 1914 under the title The Life of our Saviour and it seems that a version including some colour was also re-released in 1915 as both the titles Son of Man and Jesus of Nazareth and yet again in 1921 as Behold the Man!. That must have been a little bit like your friend inviting you around to play a great new video game they've just bought only to be presented with the original table tennis. The plot thickens still further because at some point someone took it upon themselves to get it hand-coloured (apocryphally by nuns) and it is this coloured footage that appears on the first commercially available DVD of the film.

    Shepherd's book doesn't solve all the questions that arise from this DVD, but in trawling through ancient copies of early cinema publications he is able to make a convincing case that the first Bible film was by Léar (a.k.a. Albert Kirchner) in 1897, simply called La Passion du Christ. It along with the other Jesus film from that year, The Horitz Passion Play are now both presumed lost. Similarly absent is Siegmund Lubin's 1898 The Passion Play and those three films are more or less joined in obscurity by The Passion Play of Oberammergau save from a 35mm fragment last seen in the George Eastman House archives by Kinnard and Davis.

    Which means that, according to Shepherd, the oldest extant Jesus film is the other film from 1898 The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ by George Hatot and the Lumières. Best of all is the news that the remaining footage of this film is available to watch and/or download for free from America's Library of Congress. Since they even allow you to embed it, I thought I'd break the habit of a lifetime and do just that, so here it is in all its glory:

    Where does this leave the claims of the film I have on DVD? Well, as I noted at the time,
    "a number of different actors are used in The Life of Christ. This and the fact that the style of the intertitles changes from those identical to The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, to others that look older, and less sophisticated, suggests that this film (and possibly The Death of Christ) are composites"
    But whereas then I thought this might have been the initial footage of Pathé's later The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, now I think it's various bits of film that someone has wrapped up altogether, in a similar fashion to the way someone has spliced together La vie de Moïse and The Life of Moses in the version in the Joye collection and indeed as they have combined other footage on the same DVD of a a couple of David films. And whilst I suspect some of the footage goes back to the same 1898 film, I'm not sure I trust the 1898 on the title card. After all, it's so prominent it feels a bit too much like the kind of selling point that someone would only conjure up sometime later.

    I'll discuss the actual film at a later date, but note for now how the shadows from the cross fall across the back wall rather than fall across the ground as might be expected.

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