• 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


    Saturday, May 23, 2015

    Bible Films and the Roots of Cinema

    I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which cinema is like other art forms and how that leads to such a variety of different types of film. Indeed even in writing “film” in that last sentence made me think about how differently it would have sounded were I to have used “cinema” or “movie” instead.

    Much of this is down to cinema’s roots. Film grew out of the fertile ground of various established, and indeed emerging, art forms in the 19th century and as they have developed in throughout the 20th and 21st centuries they have influenced each other. Furthermore, those who see computer games as a new art form can point to the way in which it has grown out of film and continued to interact with it in ways that would have been hard to imagine 50 years ago.

    For me, I suppose, I grew up thinking of film as a variation on theatre. You might go and see a play, or you might film that play for a wider audience. Movies were about actors acting out a story. Perhaps related to that was film being an acted out version of literature. Indeed a friend of mine says for him, he had grown up thinking that way. Of ‘film’ as acted-out novels.

    However, from a technical angle, film is an extension of photography. Essentially it is a series of photographic images played in such quick succession that those images appear to be one moving image. And many of the concerns of photographers, and by extension cinematographers – thins such as composition and mise en scène are shared by painters.

    Regular readers of this blog will know I am a fan of silent cinema and looking at this over the last few years has made me realise one link I had not previously appreciated. Whilst we like to think of the great artists of cinema – including many in the silent period – film’s roots were, in reality far more low-brow. As much as we may like to think of film as being born out of a marriage between theatre and painting, it is indisputably the case that film’s midwife was the tacky penny attractions of back street fairs and Victorian “freak shows”. Indeed in an age where midwifes can be men as well as women, I tempted to argue that cinema is also the illegitimate child of those low-brow forms of entertainment. And it’s not hard to trace how those roots have also continued into the cinema of today. There has consistently been a stream of cinema that has an emphasis on “spectacle”, things that are “new” or not seen before (e.g. technologically) and that are more about entertainment (and the needs of the consumer) rather than something purer more akin to art.

    And then of course there is propaganda, which can be defined as a creative work driven primarily by the needs of the producer. Film has often been adopted in support of one cause or another from that produced by dictatorships, through to advertising. And whilst many Bible film producers may baulk at the term, many films about the Bible have far more in common with religious tracts. Indeed many of the early silent films were produced by evangelists seeking novel ways to reach people, and the last decade has seen numerous films marketed as “evangelistic tools”

    The result is that cinema is, and has long been, very diverse. Some films are more arty and abstract others more entertaining, but in some ways I thought it might be interesting to look at how some of the key Bible films map to these 6 different roots – theatre, literature, photography, painting, entertainment and propaganda. And I thought some brief form of categorisation might be interesting.

    However, in listing these as follows I am not saying that these streams are distinct or that films fit solelyinto one category or the other: clearly they overlap. In fact, I’ve deliberately listed some in more than one category and fully recognise that films are complex works influenced by numerous people with a variety of aims and motivations (and I’m reminded of Robin Wood’s analysis of Hitchcock’s five basic plot formations and the accompanying disclaimers). That said it is interesting how some films fall fairly comfortably into one category or the other, and so, despite those disclaimers, I thought this might be an interesting exercise.

    Green Pastures (1936), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Godspell (1973), Jesus of Montreal (1989)

    The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), Last Temptationof Christ (1988), Gospel of John (2003), Visual Bible: Gospel of Matthew (1994)

    Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Birdsong (2008) and for a rather differnt reason The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902)

    Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Passion of the Christ(2004)

    The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), Noah’s Ark (1928), The Ten Commandments (1956) King of Kings (1961), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

    Evangelistic Tracts
    Day of Triumph (1954), Jesus (1979),Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002), Passion of the Christ (2004), The Bible/Son of God (2013/2014)

    Friday, May 15, 2015

    Two by Two/Ooops Noah has Gone (2015)

    Earlier in the year the BBC’s Tony Jordan told us the first draft of his script for The Ark ended with the first drop of rain. Now it’s two months later and for this new Noah movie that’s the starting point rather than it’s end.

    You see whereas many Noah films are concerned with the protagonist and his struggle with his role, in this one Noah is entirely absent. Instead the focus is on the animals on-board the ark, or rather those that are not quite on-board. You see somehow our hero Finny, and his new friend Leah have missed the boat, literally. Finny wasn't meant to be on it in the first place. He and his dad Dave had stowed away on board disguised as the other half of Leah’s family. But when the two go exploring they get separated and end up not being on-board when the ark gets swept away.

    It all leads to a Finding Nemo type plot only involving two children and two parents (Leah’s mum, Hazel, is also part of the cast). There’s been criticism in some circles for that similarity of theme, but I don’t think those are warranted. Separation of children from their parents is such a primal fear (in both directions) that it’s territory worth exploring - let's face it, it even crops up in the story of Jesus. And the way that plot device is used to examine the issue is fairly different and different themes emerge.

    One of the most interesting of these is the way the film examines the issue of nature versus nurture. Other films look at how we can break free from our upbringing, or move past traumatic experiences from the past. By assigning personality traits to the evolutionary make up of species Two by Two is able to look at the issue of how much of who we are is due to hard wiring and how we might overcome it. Leah and Hazel are grimps - their status as aggressive loners is built into their DNA. Yet the film raises the possibility that they might even overcome the limitations of their birth, such that, by extension it suggests, so might we. In a not dissimilar vein it also seems to advance the theory that if we can discover the place we really fit we can thrive in a way we might never have thought possible.

    Part of the reason that the film can explore these issues is because rather than using known and familiar animals as its lead characters, it uses made up ones instead. This raises interesting possibilities in a way that using rabbits and guinea pigs would not. Had it used familiar animals then any sense of tension would be gone - the audience would know in advance that their survival was guaranteed. Here, whilst it seems unlikely that all of the leading characters are going to be wiped out, it does suggest some latitude, particularly when you bring evolution and adaption into the mix as well. It opens up a range of options and lead to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

    Sadly, for me at least, it doesn't really have a great deal to say about the biblical story of the flood. The basics are there (although the eponymous two by two rule is seemingly not adhered to religiously) and it’s an interesting idea to take away the human focus, but it doesn't have much to offer in its place. There are a number of moments when the characters pull through in unlikely ways, but these are clearly just down to a question of genre rather than God-acting-in-mysterious-ways moments. Everything just happens because it does and leaves the whole film feeling like an unsatisfying plot device. The original story has layers of meaning - it’s an origins story, a story of faithfulness, of a god purging his subjects, of deliverance and of new creation. None of these themes really emerge and the film ending where it does leaves little conclusion other than a bit of self realisation.

    The other thing that was lacking, for me at least, was humour. I stress the personal angle in this not merely because humour is notoriously subjective, but also because I’m wary of veering into abusing national stereotypes. The film is a collaboration between Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland and three of those nations have a notably poor reputation for humour amongst the English. I strongly suspect it’s just a difference in what one is used to. Nevertheless, it did seem like it would have been rather easy to inject a little more humour at numerous points in the story. Humour that would be a bit more lowest common denominator (meant in the original, rather than the more modern - and derisory - sense).

    Overall Two by Two: Ooops Noah is Gone is not a bad little film. I enjoyed it more than I expected and the kids did as well, and some of its lessons are certainly valuable. But it’s not really a Noah film, it just came along for the ride.

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    Sunday, May 10, 2015

    Metéora (2012)

    Paradoxically there's both a familiarity about Spiros Stathoulopoulos' Metéora (2012) and a sense of novelty. It's reminiscent of a number of films which do hear some similarity thematically but are very different in terms of style. It concerns the ordinary lives of those living in remote mountainous monasteries and bears many similarities with Into Great Silence and Of Gods and Men and captures the slow, quiet passing of time in much the same way. But it also explores the issue of forbidden love for those who are meant to be living celibate lives for their God and that combined with the barren, rocky desert setting brings to mind The Last Temptation of Christ, even before the climatic scene featuring the crucifixion. But as with several other moments in the film, that scene is animated, using the style of Orthodox iconography. And it's about monks, which also brings to mind the way in which The Secret of Kells uses an animation style based on Celtic-style religious art to tell the story of an early Irish monastic community. In terms of whether or not this is a film for you, I suggest you think about how you feel about each of those films and go from there.

    There's no plot to speak of, Theodoros is a Greek monk who is in love with Urania, a Russian nun. We're not told how they fell in love, or even how long things have been going on. Indeed it's not even clear if this is love or just a temporary fascination. Neither is fluent in other's language and we don't know how the became aware of the other and made their feelings known. Indeed Theodora's doesn't even know the colour of Urania's hair. Theodoros and Urania's respective communities live opposite one another atop rocky pillars so high and steep you wonder how they ever managed to build them.  The film takes it's name from the ancient group of Greek monasteries which go back almost 1000 years. Seemingly not much has changed inside the monasteries, and from the few moments of footage from outside the monastery it seems things haven't changed too much there either. The only way in and out of Urania's nunnery is to be lowered down in a net from the buildings on top, a metaphor for being trapped if ever there was one.

    Stathoulopoulos makes his camera still and impassive allowing the images to breathe and speak for themselves. It's a great way of capturing the quiet, peaceful isolation of these communities and the silence that life there must bring. It also captures the dramatic, stark beauty of the surroundings, of the rocky pillars towering over the landscape. It's not hard to see why the monks chose this spot in the first place and Stathoulopoulos provides breathtaking image after breathtaking image. Yet his impassive use of the camera is not just about the beauty of the image but also allow the viewer to observe what is going on and draw their own conclusions; to look at how the characters wrestle with the issues.

    In contrast to this however, these scenes are intercut with the animated scenes, no less beautiful or stark, but certainly more expressive and emotional. It's as if  they stand to offer a commentary on the live action images that make up the majority of the film. It's here that the characters' inner lives are revealed, the emotions they have shut away beneath the surface.

    Interwoven through all of this are various references to, and citations of, Psalm 23 and the film wrestles with passage as things progress. The words have a comforting feel to them, but the images we see tend to conflict with them. There are no green pastures or still waters. The most memorable scene of a "table being laid" is not in the presence of enemies, yet breeds enmity. Most strikingly of all is the scene of shepherds handling their goats and doing to one what shepherds ultimately do to all those in their care, which the sheep in the psalm somehow fails to anticipate. It's one of several moments in the film when the peaceful atmosphere is broken by something more jarring. The events are not overly dramatic in themselves, but set against the calming quietness of monastic life they stand out like the Metéoran pillars themselves.

    Perhaps the film's most dramatic scene is one of animated scenes when Theodoroas comes face to face with Jesus on the cross (pictured above). Throughout the film Theodoros' visual similarity to Jesus has been obvious, but here it is made even more explicit. And as with many films which include a climatic encounter with the crucified Christ this one is decisive and pivotal. Yet there's also an ambiguity about the meaning of this scene. The imagery is striking an potent and yet Stathoulopoulos' refuses to tell his audience what to think or how to interpret his work. It's in keeping with this film which offers much food for thought without pushing hard answers.


    Metéora is available on the subscription viewing service MUBI until the 15th May. (For what it's worth, it's a great service).
    I should add that this isn't my original version of this review. That was quite good and then the app I'd done it on crashed and now it's all gone. Sadly whilst I got back most of the content I don't have the time to make this read as well as before. Oh well.