• 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, March 31, 2015

    The Ark (2015)

    I must admit I'm a big fan of Darren Aronofsky's Noah from 2014. It's a huge, dark exploration of- some of the textual and philosophical issues surrounding the flood story written in bold, dramatic tones. Tony Jordan's The Ark is not those things, indeed it's a very different take on the story, but none the worse for that. Out go the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, in come the warm dry Moroccan dessert. Out goes the grunting, moody grit of Russell Crowe and in comes the quirky warmth of David Threlfall, no less determined, but very much in his own fashion. Out goes the primitive, mythical operatic style of Aronofsky's film and in it's place we find an approach that probably owes more to soap opera than anything.

    Both films have been criticised for their dialogue: Crowe et al. talk in that way which is so familiar from epic films - a sort of halfway between Yoda and Frankenstein’s monster; Threlfall and family for lacking gravitas. The truth is that we don’t know how they spoke. And whilst the importance and severity of the situation Noah foresaw is enough to make anyone strip their sentences down to the bare minimum, it’s also likely that aspects of Noah’s normal family life remained as well, like catching up with cousins at a wake.

    So Jordan’s comes into it’s own. To the cynics, of course, it’s the easiest of targets. The Bible film genre is easier than most to poke fun at, purely for it’s own existence; but somehow the story of Noah is the largest and slowest moving fish in a particularly well-crammed barrel. But if you want to use film to explore the stories of the Bible, and to think about what they might have to say about our relationship to the word today then using a modern soap-operaesque approach is as legitimate as any. INdeed the nature of myth through the ages has been taking an old story and reworking it in a way that your new audience relates to.

    Interestingly The Ark starts with a shot taken under water. In a film about a flood there’s barely a drop of the stuff on display. The Ark is surely the driest Noah film on record. Not only is it set in arid desert, but the rains don’t start until the last ten minutes and even then the time spent afloat is over before it’s really started. Even the post-flood scenes take place against a sandy, dry background, asif the Ark’s inhabitants had wanted to hang on, just in case it was going to start up again.

    So the film’s wettest scene is actually of Noah’s sons, and then the patriarch himself, enjoying a bonding moment in a local oasis. It’s an indication of the way the relationships will continue throughout the film. Noah is a friendly, loved and admired father. Even when his sons think he may have lost his mind they can’t quite entirely rule out the possibility that he might be right. Time and again they honour him for the way he has brought them up.

    Whilst the film overall relies rather more on the Bible that on the Qur'an, in one important aspect it follows the Islamic version of the story - Noah has four sons rather than the more familiar three. From the moment he appears on screen you get the same feeling you have for the fate of anyone who beams down from the Starship Enterprise wearing Any sense of foreboding that presents the viewer with is only heightened by the realisation that the fourth son, Kenan, is played by the excellent Nico Mirallegro.

    Perhaps it's just because I last saw him in his excellent performance in 2014's Common, but the moment he appeared on screen as Noah's fourth son, I got the same feeling I used to get whenever an unknown actor in a red jumper beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Somehow someone's not going to be on board at the end of the film. Either way Mirallegro is reprising the role of a young man whose punishment seems somewhat out of proportion to his “crimes”.

    But Mirallegro’s Kenan, with the link to the land of Canaan which only becomes explicit in the final scene, is where, I suspect, Jordan’s wrestles most earnestly with his subject matter. Early in the film the distinctions are more black or white (perhaps a little too literally). One the one hand is Noah a believer in God. On the other the city dwellers who worship not, as would have been most likely, an assortment of local and/or ancestral deities but instead are pre-historic new atheists. It’s a little cringeworthy, but Kenan adopts Noah’s arguments against atheism, even at one point, parrotting his argument that "[o]nly an idiot would say there is no god because to say that you'd need to know everything, and only an idiot would think they do".

    Kenan gains far more screen time than Ham, Shem and Japheth. Just as Aronofsky used the fictional Ila to pose his questions, so Jordan employs Kenan for the same purpose. When Kenan fatally writes off the deluge as just another storm, choosing to stay with his girlfriend instead you can sense Jordan’s dilemma. If atheism is idiotic, a more traditional take on the Noah story is no less troubling. The sin which has ruined the world need only be “wanting” rather than being “content”. Kenan might be sleeping with his girlfriend and enjoying the odd puff of a pipe, but his behaviour hardly seems to merit his extinction.

    Certainly, the strain of atheism Noah and his family encounters is rather anachronistic. Its followers pour scorn on the idea of an old man in the sky with a white beard millennia before the greeks would first picture Zeus in such a fashion. They argue that they “have science” and that the "universe created itself". Surely they argue if the world is designed then "Who designed the designer?"

    Elsewhere however these kind of modern-sounding objections feel much more realistic, most notably when first Noah’s wife and then his sons respond to his plan to escape the world’s watery demise. “Won't they all eat each other?” asks Mrs Noah (played wonderfully by Joanne Whalley). “Can’t we just escape to higher ground?” suggests one of his sons.

    It’s these interactions which feel the most natural and are, for me, the the strongest part of the film, whereas the earlier scenes had felt a little too stereotypical. Noah and his godly family are white: the non-white characters are the sinners who will drown. The women either deny sex to their husbands, or are too frigid (and I would estimate that the length of time discussing sex is far greater than the time The Noahs ultimately spend afloat).

    Thankfully this seems to change once a “messenger” appears from God and instructs Noah to expand his farming-come-boat-building business (making a line drawing in the sand as if Noah was unsure what a boat looked like). It becomes a spot Noah returns to as the story progresses, the rains seem delayed and even his faith starts to waiver. The messenger however does not return until the very end of the film, and even then only to pose the question "Will Man learn his lesson?”

    Gradually, though, people start to come around. First Noah’s wife, then his sons and daughters in law. Whilst Noah’s preaching in the city appeared, initially, not to have gained any new converts to his cause, later on a handful of followers turn up. And then, at last, the animals appear, and, just as Noah’s wife had predicted, the family end up having to “make a dash for it when it starts raining."

    The animals appearance is one of the films boldest and best choices and allows the films focus to remain on the human drama at the heart of the story. It also allows it to capture a strange kind of fear as the doors to the ark close and suddenly a bunch of strangers realise they are trapped in a confined space with one another and bunch of equally frightened animals.

    If the ending is rather twee, it’s perhaps because Jordan didn’t want to include it at all. Like the writer of the book of Hebrews Jordan’s interest is more in Noah as a man of faith than the more Old Testament ideas of origins and covenant. Purportedly the first draft of the script ended with very first drop of rain. Whilst that might have felt a little under-done, it’s testimony to Jordan’s writing skills that the happy ending and the token appearance of the rainbow feels a little surplus to requirements.

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, March 29, 2015

    Dawn of Victory (1966)

    Dawn of Victory (1966) is one of the four titles that form part of the Gospel Film Archive's 2015 Easter Collection. It's later than many of the films released by the GFA and whilst it still clearly made on a limited budget, it's a more accomplished production than many similar-level projects from the 40s and 50s.

    This is apparent right from the off with a striking, 60s title sequence not dissimilar to many Hollywood productions of the time. Unusually the film opts to start with Jesus already on the road to Golgotha struggling under the weight of a full cross. But as Simon of Cyrene is pressed into action the camera focusses instead on Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who decide to retreat from the crowds to study what light Isaiah 53 may have to shed on the events they are witnessing. At this stage neither of the two is a follower of Jesus, but they are both intrigued by Jesus and trying to fit all that they have seen into their world-view.

    The publicity for this film really emphasises this part of the film, but after less than 9 minutes it's more or less finished, as the camera arrives at Golgotha to witness the prosecution. Whilst the first shot (above) is a little out of focussed it's very nicely composed. It's noticeable as well that Jesus and the two men crucified with him are only a little higher than the crowd witnesses Jesus' execution. This is actually more accurate than the majority of films about Jesus: those being crucified tended to be more or less at eye level with those witnessing the crucifixion, rather than high above them as per the majority of Jesus film.

    It's also one of the few films about Jesus to include all 7 of the phrases the gospels record Jesus as saying from the cross. Having witnessed Jesus' death we also get the traditional proclamation from a Roman centurion, before the camera returns to Nicodemus and Joseph who are now convinced that Jesus is who he (apparently) claimed to be. "Only the Son of God could have died like that". That's one of those phrases that seems quite dated nowadays. These days it's more widely accepted that claiming to be the/s "son of God" was not as unique a claim and many took it for.

    Joseph heads off to arrange Jesus' burial and so the next scene takes us into Joseph's garden where a small battalion of soldiers are grumbling about having to keep an eye on Jesus' tomb. These scenes are rather mixed. There's a great shot of the soldiers around the campfire, but when the tomb is shaken open the special effects are really not very special. As the film's title suggests it is the scenes on Sunday morning which really take precedence here. The poorly executed moment when the tomb opens comes at the end of a fairly lengthy conversation between the Roman guards, again a moment that is not covered very often by films about Jesus.

    There then follows one of the most extensive selections of episodes from after Jesus' resurrection that I'm aware of - perhaps, even, on a par with The Miracle Maker. It makes a reasonable effort to harmonise the accounts from the four gospels, even if that means occasionally doing things like keeping the voice that first speaks to the women off camera so it's not clear whether they are being spoken to by one man (Mark), an angel (Matt) or two men (Luke), or if it's Jesus himself. It's also interesting that Peter claims to have met Jesus as well, a clear nod to 1 Cor 15:5. Finally Jesus ends, rather strangely, with the words from John 14:27.

    So for various reasons this is an interesting addition to the canon and certainly not the dry proof-texting I was inspecting from the film's description. Sadly the producers, Concordia Films, didn't make many more film, but the actor who played Jesus - Jason Evers - went on to star in a string of classic 80s TV programmes including The A-Team, Dukes of Hazard, CHiPS, Knight Rider and Murder She Wrote. Essentially, if it was popular with boys my age early on Saturday evening, it appears that Evers must have been in it at some point.

    I'll be reviewing the other films on this disc over the next few weeks. (Please note I was sent a copy of the disc to review).


    Saturday, March 28, 2015

    Mysteries of the Bible: Jesus

    Last night saw what appears to be Channel 5's Easter religious offering the first in an supposedly four-part series called Mysteries of the Bible. I say "supposedly" because despite it being claimed in numerous places that this was the first episode of four, I've not managed to find anywhere that gives any details away about the final three instalments.

    The plot thickens still further as it turns out that this episode was actually a re-edited version of a 2014 National Geographic documentary The Jesus Mysteries (currently available on YouTube). Indeed the game is rather given away by the repeated use of the (above) title card from the National Geographic programme using the original title rather than Channel 5's re-brand.

    This version of the documentary is rather shorter as well. Whereas the original ran for 2 hours with adverts (or 90 minutes without) this cut barely makes it to the hour mark with the adverts, leaving just 45 minutes of actual content. Whereas the original version looked at seven mysteries, here there were only five (nativity, childhood, miracles, Mary and crucifixion, leaving out segments on St. Peter and the veil of St. Veronica).

    Overall it's a strange mix. The producers chose a good group of scholars for their talking heads - Bart Ehrman, Helen Bond, Mark Goodacre, Shimon Gibson, Larry Hurtado and Kate Cooper amongst several others and use them quite well. Apparently all the interviews were conducted at an SBL conference which reflects the kind of economising that is reflected in other parts of the film, although not always with such good results.

    For example, an awful lot of "green-screening" has been used to make this production and so much of it is so poorly executed that it's not only painfully obvious but rather tiresome by the end. Likewise there are several special effects, but the filmmakers' enthusiasm for them does not match the quality of their execution. Too many of the effects used are akin to the kind of filters you get in cheap video and photo editing packages that no-one uses except teenagers trying to impress their friends on Facebook.

    Content-wise, though, four fifths of it is pretty good. It's not exactly new or ground-breaking, but it's well put across and there were a few points with which I was unfamiliar. But that good work is rather let down by the section which examines the theory that Jesus, as a boy, travelled to Cornwall. It's such a bonkers theory that even those consultants who feature in this section are still fairly dismissive barring the one Cornwall local who has a corresponding book to sell. The others, presumably, will no doubt be cursing their tact. In the end even the narrator can't quite muster enough enthusiasm to give things any credibility. You wonder why the filmmakers included the segment at all and even more baffling is why Channel 5 left this part in at the expense of the sections on Peter and Veronica.

    In contrast the strongest section is the one on Jesus' miracles which gives particular emphasis to the social implications of Jesus' healings. The film stresses not only that Jesus' actions included those who had previously been excluded, but also that it was in breaking these taboos that got Jesus into such a lot of trouble.

    So whilst it is rather marred by the "Jesus tours England" section, it has some surprising merits as well and many of the audience will feel that, on balance, it was just about worth their time to watch it.


    Wednesday, March 25, 2015

    Suchet on In The Footsteps Of St Peter

    Among the various Bible film related productions airing this Easter is this new BBC documentary David Suchet: In The Footsteps Of St Peter. The series is a follow up to Suchet’s 2012 documentary In the Footsteps of Saint Paul and follows a similar format travelling around in Galilee, Jerusalem and Rome, talking to experts and visiting key places in an attempt to get to know St. Peter better.

    For much of the first decade of this century most religious TV documentaries were vaguely controversial, most notably those presented by Robert Beckford on Channel 4. But the BBC seems to have changed tack of late and sought to provide the background to some of the stories of the Bible in a way that will, I would have though, primarily appeal to believers, even though it aims to be neutral and impartial.

    There are several new bits of information on the programme. The most important thing is the news that it will air over two mornings, with part one on Good Friday,3rd April at 9am, followed by part two on Easter Sunday Morning, 5th April at the same time. There are detailed descriptions of parts one and two on the BBC website.

    Also there is a 5 minute video promo with some short excerpts from the film as well as the transcript where Suchet makes some interesting points, as well as an accompanying article.

    One bit that did raise an eyebrow was the final paragraph where Suchet says:
    My travels around Galilee talking with people and visiting places associated with Peter such as Capernaum suggest he might have been more of an entrepreneur, running his own fishing business. His financial security made it possible for him to leave a wife, family and dependents to follow Jesus for some three years.
    That’s a convenient interpretation – Peter falling back on his wealth from his hard work – rather than a more traditional, and dare I say radical, one which sees Peter as literally giving up everything he had to follow Jesus, and I have to say I’m unconvinced. After all Peter’s business seems to have permanently taken a back seat at least at some point and whilst one could argue that gradually the income from being a disciple increased at around the time his savings ran out, it seems a little convenient. Presumably though the documentary will flesh this out a little.

    It’s also interesting to hear that there will be some discussion (and presumably footage) of the, so-called, Jesus boat. It may be almost 30 years since it was discovered but it’s a fascinating find and one I’d like to know more about.

    Labels: , , ,

    Friday, March 20, 2015

    Trailer for the BBC's The Ark

    With Lent progressing rapidly the publicity for all the Bible films being released this Easter is hotting up. CNN's Finding Jesus has already shown a few episodes, more and more is emerging about Bill Reilly's Killing Jesus and likewise with A.D..

    The BBC tends to be a bit more tight lipped about these things until the very last minute, so it was interesting to see that they have finally released a bit more information in a press release detailing their religious programming for Easter. Amongst the programmes discussed is this bit on The Ark:
    The Ark - a one off drama for BBC One, starring David Threlfall (Noah), Joanne Whalley (Emmie), Nico Mirallegro (Kenan), Ashley Walters (God’s Angel), Emily Bevan (Salit), Michael Fox (Shem), Andrew Hawley (Japeth), Hannah Johm-Kamen (Nahlab) and Ian Smith (Ham). It is the retelling of the biblical story of Noah and The Ark. Noah, a farmer and family man, is instructed by an angel to build an ark in the middle of a desert in order to save both his family and the faithful from a devastating flood. A seemingly impossible task, especially when his sons refuse to believe him and help, Noah risks ridicule and humiliation from the degenerate townsfolk as well as his loving but exasperated family, in his quest to carry out his God-given task.

    The Ark is a timeless tale; a story of family and faith; about one man's belief and fixation with building the ark which will ultimately save his family and mankind. It is an obsession which leads to the fragmentation of his family, a test of their faith in their father and their father’s faith in God and everything he believes in.
    The show has been produced by Tony Jordan's Red Planet Productions who were also responsible for other BBC productions such as The Passion (2008) and The Nativity (2010), and their website also includes a trailer for the film.

    Elsewhere, TVWise reveals that the film's first episode will air on Monday March 30th at 8:30pm on BBC1. There's more of a feature piece at Christian Today with some quotes from Jordan himself.

    Incidentally, the BBC announcement also discusses David Suchet's follow up to his 2013 documentary on Paul. David Suchet: In The Footsteps of St Peter and also mentions a word for word dramatisation of John's Gospel, which, given previous partnerships will surely be the recent film by Big Book Media / The Lumo Project.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, March 18, 2015

    Hostages; Jaël et Sisera (2013)

    Whilst we await the results of the Israeli election I've been enjoying a TV series about the potential demise of another Israeli Prime Minister in Bnei Aruba (Hostages, 2013).

    I mention it here because the lead character is Dr. Yael Danon, a surgeon who is held hostage the night before she is due to operate on the Israeli premier. The terrorists in question want her to see that he dies and whilst written like that it seems a little far-fetched it's actually pretty well done.

    The reason it up here is the biblical overtones of the heroine's name, Yael, a variation on Jael, the woman in Judges who is reputed to have killed the Hebrews' enemy Sisera by luring him into her tent and then driving a tent peg through his head. It's the kind of powerful imagery that makes the story hard to forget, even though it's rarely discussed, and even more rarely portrayed on film. For those unfamiliar with Jael's appearance in Judges 4 here it is:
    Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.”’ But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent-peg in his temple.
    Hostages isn't any kind of attempt to modernise the biblical narrative, but needless to say when the series' lead character is called Jael and starts waving sharp objects in the direction of the men who are "guests" in her home, it doesn't seem coincidental. Interestingly it's the kind of link that seemed a little too obvious to the show's original intended audience, but flies over the heads of the wider audience that the programme has found due to it's success.

    The only film about Jael I'm aware of is Henri Andréani's 1911 Jaël et Sisera (Pathé). I've not had the pleasure but it's one of the film's discussed by David Shepherd in "The Bible on Silent Film", from where I've taken the image below.

    According to Shepherd the film plays a little fast and loose with the biblical account. Jael is married to Sisera's friend Heber the Kenite who not only slays the Canaanite general, but also releases a group of Israelites from their imprisonment in the enemy camp. Shepherd concludes:
    "While Israelite femme fatales such as Judith and Jael had already enjoyed a long history of glorification and vilification prior to their emergence on the silent screen, Andréani's choice of Jael and treatment of her can hardly be a coincidence given the prominence enjoyed by feminine heroines, often armed and dangerous, within early sensational melodrama."
    Shepherd also notes that the film omits Deborah who is the character that the Bible chooses to focus on.

    The film is still in existence; there's a copy in the BFI archive for starters, although sadly they appear to have inexplicably ditched their excellent Film and TV database and replaced it with a rather dumbed down their archive website. Sadly the new version no longer offer plot summaries for the film but you can read a little more on their Collections Search page. Sadly, it's also not covered by Campbell and Pitts. Thankfully there is a little summary (and the original poster) courtesy of the Foundation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé:
    The early scenes, tumultuous, violent and colourful in a wild and grandiose setting, depict the bloody struggle that divided the barbarian camp of Sisera from Barak, leader of the Israelites. In the first tableaux, we are at Sisera's camp where Jael, wife of Heber, delivers her fellow Jewish prisoners. They flee, revealing the location of Sisera's camp and Barak decides to march against his enemy. After a fight, Sisera's army is thrown into the Kishon water torrent. Only Sisera, escapes the massacre, fleeing his conqueror/enemy. Cornered, exhausted, he begs for asylum under the tent of Jael, who gives him hospitality. But while the fugitive, overcome by fatigue, falls asleep deeply, Jael, takes advantage of his sleep and kills him, thus delivering the Israelites from their persecutor. God is acclaimed by his people as a liberator.


    Saturday, March 14, 2015

    No Greater Power (1942)

    Many years ago I won a copy of the cine projector release of this film and have been waiting for our family projector to get into a fit state to be able to watch it. Having finally got around to seeing it I’ve now found out that the Gospel Films Archive have released it on DVD (along with I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the 1949 film Ambassador for Christ from Cathedral Films’ “Life of Paul series) so it’s available to view for considerably less hassle than I had to go through.

    The film itself dates from 1942 which puts it in that early talkie period when very few companies were making Jesus films were made. One of the major exceptions was Cathedral films who also made other early, sound-era, Jesus films such as The Great Commandment (made in 1939 but not released until Fox did so in 1942) and Child of Bethlehem (1940). Like those films No Greater Power was produced by Rev. James K. Friedrich who also co-wrote it with Robert Edmunds. Friedrich’s regular collaborator John T. Coyle directed, a partnership that would produce a vast body of Bible films in the years to follow.

    The film starts, somewhat unusually, with a man and woman arriving in what appears to be a rural village. As she is pregnant and riding a donkey it’s natural to think of the Nativity and to wonder how these images will fit with what we have already been told is the story of Zacchaeus, particularly as the couple are searching for somewhere to stay the night.

    Further unexpected twists are to come: We meet Zacchaeus, but he’s only a down-on-his-luck potter; the couple are not married but brother and sister; and it emerges that the man of the couple, rather than Zacchaeus who is the tax collector.

    Initially Zacchaeus turns the couple away. He already has some financial difficulties and offering hospitality to a tax collector is bad for business such is the feeling of hatred and the fear of spiritual contamination from his fellow townspeople. But then there’s a chance encounter with a pernickety Jewish scribe who forces him to destroy one of his pots when it momentarily comes into contact with a dead insect. Zacchaeus is infuriated and decides to reject the strictures of the Jewish law and offer hospitality, at a considerable price, to the tax collector and his wife.

    As the evening passes, the two men chat and the tax collector persuades Zacchaeus of the benefits of that particular profession, namely that there is money and power to be gained. When his guests leave, Zacchaeus enlists and a quick montage shows us him accruing considerable wealth.

    It’s clear though that his perceived rejection by his fellow townspeople, and his subsequent power and wealth have changed him such that whereas initially he was the kind of man who might be compassionate towards strangers in town, he is now motivated almost solely by profit. So it is that we arrive at the story from Luke’s Gospel.

    Later on Cathedral Films’ offerings tended to adopt a more straightforward, point and shoot methodology, perhaps as the pressures of covering so much material in such a short period of time took precedence over more artistic concerns. Here however there are several notable shots and it’s not inconceivable that these were due, in part, to cinematographer John Alton who went on to greater things in Elmer Gantry and Robert Siodmak’s classic Film Noir The Killers (1946).

    Perhaps it’s just the era, or the black and white photography, but it’s the Noir film that seems more closely related to Alton’s work here, particularly the interiors of Zacchaeus’ house, which is shot from a variety of high and low angles. There’s also interesting use of light, not least the film’s most discussed shot (below), where backlighting forms a halo effect around Jesus’ head.

    Significantly our first shot of Jesus is taken from over Zacchaeus’ shoulder (below), not quite a point-of-view shot, but certainly suggestive of such. Jesus is a small figure in the background, distant, remote and cut off from the film’s eponymous anti-hero. The audience is then privileged with closer shots of Jesus as we see him interact with some of the townspeople. There are blessings of children, and perhaps the suggestion of a healing.

    Here as well we’re given a brief sample of Jesus’ teaching, all of which comes from the Gospel of Matthew rather than Luke. In the main it’s Matthew 5:43-48 (shown as intertitles in the cine release version), but the final line is Matt 5:20: "...except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven."

    It's not entirely clear why the filmmakers decided that, of all the words of Jesus available to them, it was these that should be chosen here. The "love your enemies" passage from Matt 5:43-48 is conceivably the kind of thing that Jesus might have thought Zacchaeus's neighbours needed to hear, but did they think their audience needed to hear it as well? Given that this film was released the year after the United States entered the Second World War, it's hard not to think of that conflict in the background. And what of the use of Matt 5:20? To end on this passage - and to graft it onto a passage where it doesn't belong, in a story that neither passage belongs in suggests some kind of message intended for the audience.

    It's not long however, Zacchaeus gets to meet Jesus. From a theological angle it’s perhaps significant that this is very much a film about Jesus finding the sinner and not the other way round. Indeed the film brings out some of the more available metaphors in the story which are easily overlooked solely by reading it. Zacchaeus isolated and to, an extent, tangled in the tree. It’s reminiscent of Absalom and also of the tree in the Garden of Eden: neither connection had really struck me before.

    Jesus enters Zacchaeus's house and things largely proceed in line with the account in Luke 19:1-10, but there are more interesting ideas visually, not least the shot of one of the women of the house washing Jesus' feet. Zaccheus' wife had not been convinced about his career change, but was largely absent from the montage that charted his rise to power, but here she (?) takes the first active role in responding to Jesus, unwittingly aligning herself with the "woman of sinful life" from Luke 7.

    The moment of Zaachaeus' conversion is also portrayed interestingly, with a double exposure of his face overlaying a montaged flashback of earlier scenes in the film. Looking back it's easy to smirk at this shot which seems a quite dated by today's standards, but it's easy to forget that this film was made just a few months after the release of Citizen Kane, and only 12 years after Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, of which it's most reminiscent.

    However, arguably the film's most satisfactory shot comes right near the end, as Zacchaeus leaves his house to return his ill-gotten gains to his victims. The moment (see below) is shot from inside the house, over the shoulder of Jesus who stands in the doorway. Zaccheus gradually diminishes as he moves towards the townspeople, gradually merging with them and so bringing the attention back towards his new Lord. It pairs perfectly with the shot over Zacchaeus's shoulder earlier in the film, suggesting both unity and, perhaps, substitution, with its connotations of atonement. It's a fitting end for a production that uses strong visual ideas and good filmmaking technique to elevate it above its humble origins.

    Labels: , , ,

    Sunday, March 08, 2015

    Nazarin (1959)

    Luis Buñuel is one of a small group of directors whose work started in the silent era and ran way into the 1970s. As a big fan of another member of that exclusive club - Alfred Hitchcock - it’s tempting to get drawn into comparisons between the two, not least because spiritual issues in general and their Jesuit Catholic educations in particular, were major influences on their work.

    I suspect that the attitudes to both men to questions of faith varied throughout their long careers. Certainly the harsh critique of religion in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way), where religion is a monstrous edifice built of false foundations, is in stark contrast to Nazarin where Buñuel finds sympathy for his religiously motivated lead, even if he implies that such a lost cause is an indication of the absence of God.

    It’s an unusual premise. Priests in movies tend towards one of two positions depending on the filmmakers’ prior beliefs: good priests whose example and ministry hint at the possibility of a good and gracious God; or bad priests whose sins typify the absence of God and, for the filmmaker at least, the murky motivations of many of those who have gained from abusing their position.

    Here however Buñuel presents us with a priest who distils the very best of all those movie priests but uses his ineffectiveness and naiveté to question the existence of God. In part it’s an inversion of the Job story, whereby despite God’s servant living exactly as he ought to, he ends up downtrodden and cursed, repeatedly causing harm not only to himself, but also those around him. There’s no upbeat ending however and ultimately it’s God, rather than his servant, that ends up in the dock.

    Yet it’s also a subversion of the example of Christ. Father Nazario is the very epitome of someone following in the footsteps of Jesus. He protects and attempts to reform the prostitute Andara; he frequently gives all his money away; he takes upa job only to leave it when he realises his appointment means others might go without; and he continues to preach the gospel to anyone that will listen. He even resists being called upon to miraculously heal a feverish girl, prays anyway, and then denies responsibility when she is healed.

    Yet, that incident aisde, instead of a successful ministry Nazario finds only failure and rejection. Indeed Buñuel even strips him of his chance to be a martyr. He’s imprisoned by the authorities, bound and due to March to court, but then at the last minute separated from the other prisonners and allowed to travel unfettered and accompanied by a guard out of uniform. Whilst Nazario is not exactly free, he is no longer fearing for his life. Indeed this is one of the few Christ-figure films that neither ends with the death of the protagonist, nor even photographs them in a cruciform pose.

    He does however manage to incur the wrath of the political and religious authorities. The church is scandalised by his relationship with the two women who accompany him, Beatriz and Andara. Andara is a former prostitute, Beatriz has psychotic episodes - including one where she imagines a picture of Jesus coming to life and mocking her - but both become devoted to Father Nazario and follow him everywhere..

    However, much to his annoyance, the source of their devotion is not his teaching, despite his frequent chastisement, indeed ultimately Beatriz returns to her abusive lover Pinto. In the final scene she is shown falling asleep on his shoulder as they ride past a bedraggled Father Nazario en route as he walks the long road to face the authorities.

    I say “authorities”, but by this stage the religious authorities have long made up their minds. Even at the start of the film he is considered something of a loose cannon, operating without a parish, By the end they consider him “reckless”, a “rebel spirit” affected by “madness”. Many parts of the film are damning of the church, but none more so that the penultimate scene where one of the bishop’s representatives tells him that “your habits contradict those of priests. Your ways confront the church which you claim to love and obey.”

    What’s interesting about the film is where it finishes, further along the road to judgement Nazrio is given a pineapple by a fruit seller. DIfferent writers have interpreted this in different ways. Some see it as symbolic of the crown of thorns, others as suggestive of a handgrenade and still others as a nod to the fruit of the tree of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. At first Nazrio rejects it, but then he changed his mind and acepts the women’s charity, walking on with a troubled, although rather ambiguous look on his face. Has he realised for the first time that he is a human who needs others as much as they need him? Or is this his realisation of the absence of God.

    Either way, ending at this point reminds me of how the ministry of Jesus must have looked like at this point. Despised and rejected, imprisoned by corrupt political authorities after the religious authorities have washed their hands of him. Rumours of him healing people in the past pale into insignificance the numbers of those who cheered him have dwindled away to just a prostitute and a mad woman. And even then they can’t stay awake at the crucial moment.

    Christianity, of course, centres on the notion that this was not the end of the story. But for a while, at least, things must have seemed as bleak as they do at the end of Nazarin.

    Labels: , ,

    Sunday, March 01, 2015

    CNN's Finding Jesus Starts Tonight

    At the start of the year I posted an article listing most of the Bible related films that are due to appear during 2015. Somehow, though, I managed to miss out CNN's six-part documentary Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, despite the fact that my friend Mark Goodacre is the main historical consultant on the series (though for a New Testament scholar he sometimes seems rather unaware of that bit about not hiding lights under bushels).

    Anyway, the first part of the series starts tonight (1st March) at 9pm ET/PT and will continue for the six Sundays leading up to Easter. I'll be interested to see how it,s received given that Mark revealed in a recent interview for CBN that, in contrast to the more sensationalist reporting that often surrounds these subjects, these films will be taking a calmer, more rational approach.

    I've updated my original post with the following summary:
    Finding Jesus: Faith Fact Forgery (CNN)
    Finding Jesus is a six part documentary from CNN examining some of the historical artefacts surrounding the historical Jesus. In contrast to many of the exaggerated claims made for some of these artefacts, the documentary will take a more rational approach, carefully examining the evidence. The six episodes will be: The Turin Shroud, John the Baptist (including the John the Baptist's finger relic), Judas (including the Gospel of Judas), the Secret Brother of Jesus (with the James Ossuary), The True Cross (fragments of the cross relics) and Mary Magdalene (covering all that Da Vinci Code malarkey). Mark Goodacre is the series' lead consultant and you can find out more on the programme's official website.