• 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.

    Friday, April 03, 2015

    The Antkeeper (1966)

    What do "Late Great Planet Earth" and Luis Buñuel have in common? Well if the IMDb is to be believed the answer is Rolf Forsberg. The first part of that comparison is fact: Forsberg directed the 1979 movie based on Hal Lindsay's bewilderingly successful book. The other half of the equation is more open to interpretation. Certainly Forsberg made surreal films about religious issues, of which his first, The Antkeeper is a good example. But I'm not sure how far the comparison goes beyond that. Certainly it flatters Forsberg far more than it does Buñnuel.

    The Antkeeper is certainly a novel little movie. Just shy of half an hour and the only Jesus-as-an-ant movie I know of. It’s premise is a simple one - to explain the Gospel as a metaphorical story about ants and their watchful keeper. In and of itself the idea will be surreal enough for some, but Forsberg makes a number of choices which move it into the field of the experimental as well as the surreal.

    Firstly there are some really interesting shots. The opening shot is an ant’s eye view of some grains of sand that look like rocks. There are the extreme close ups of the ants themselves.Then there is the use of light, colour and film-stock. The film uses bright, almost gaudy, colours but there’s a certain translucence about them. Certainly it deliberately eschews a studio feel in favour of a more arty cine camera feel.

    Lastly there are the portrayals of the characters. One of the characters, Bruja the character who is analogous to the devil, has a bizarre half old-man, half woman appearance. There’s a brief explanation for this, but it’s none too convincing, and really it seems like mainly an artistic choice. It does heighten the bizarre other-worldly feel of the film which some will enjoy, but others will find weird for weirdness’ sake.

    The problem with the film however is that the metaphorical aspect of the film fails in various significant ways. Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, the God character comes out of it very badly indeed. My daughter hit the nail on the head when she inadvertently called the antkeeper "the Evil Gardener". That was surely not Forsberg’s intention, but my daughter won’t be alone in viewing the character that way. For no reason he bans the ants from part of the garden - a decision that is not only incomprehensible to the ants, but also to us as well. When, despite his command, they visit the garden anyway, he pulls off their wings and banishes them to a barren desert bit of wasteland even though it’s surrounded my lusher looking areas.

    This touches on the other significant failing that using such an allegory exposes the holes in their narrative. (I say “their narrative” because while The Antkeeper is presented as a metaphorical retelling of the Christian Gospel certain parts of that gospel are particular to only certain groups of Christians. Certainly there are many Christians who would not accept the version of the gospel that The Antkeeper portrays).

    So taking the examples above the antkeeper’s deliberate maiming of the ants discredits the idea that he has any particular care for the ants. Creating a literal devil character likewise left me wondering why. The analogy makes the original story seem far less credible, rather than more, which surely cannot have been the original intention.

    Finally there’s a problem with the chosen allegory itself. In order to get the analogy to work the film has to anthropomorphise the ants. This then reverses the flow of the metaphor. The ants think and act like humans to the extent that it might just have been easier to tell an allegory using human characters.

    The metaphor is not without its strengths - the idea of a God that is to us like a gardener might be to an ant is an interesting idea, and it may help viewers to think more about how earth-shattering the idea of the incarnation is - but the best aspects of the film are its visual ideas rather than it’s theological ones.


    The Antkeeper is available on DVD as part of the Gospel Film Archive's Easter 2015 Collection. The GFA provided the disc for this review. There's a little more on the film at the Christian Film Database.



    • At 9:21 pm, June 18, 2015, Anonymous place on hold said…

      I would never have imagined Hal Lindsay and Bunuel references in the same sentence. Stimulating.


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