• 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


    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982)

    Just as the surprise success of The Passion of the Christ inspired various producers to give the green light to a number of Bible films, a generation before another surprisingly successful Bible film also inspired a handful of copy-cat pictures. Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) may have been a comedy, and may have caused a stir upon its release, but when it performed well at the box office (returning almost $20 million on production costs of around £3 million) it inspired other film-makers to follow suit.

    The following year saw the release of the hastily made Wholly Moses. Like Brian it starred a Footlights Cambridge graduate (Dudley Moore) as Herschel, whose life strangely parallels the life of a biblical character. Despite Moore being in the middle of a gold streak - with the film being made between his big successes 10 and Arthur, the film flopped and deservedly so. Lacking both originality and wit it tried to reproduce the success of Brian with the minimum amount of effort. It failed.

    Less well known was a French film made two years later in 1982. Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (A Quarter to Two Before Jesus Christ, or 1:45 BC) opted for a more original plot, ditching any biblical parallels, and focussed more on a pastiche of the biblical epics of the 50s and 60s. This had also been part of the intention with Brian - although the link between the "I'm Brian and so's my wife" scene and Spartacus is lost on many - but here it's much more upfront and more to do with epic films in general than specifically skewering Jesus films like The Greatest Story Ever Told. So Taylor and Burton's Cleopatra is very much to the fore, as are some of the gladiator films such as Barabbas and Androcles and the Lion and, of course, Spartacus.

    But the film that is perhaps most clearly referenced is Ben Hur (1959); indeed the film's hero is even named Ben-Hur Marcel (played by Coluche). Ben-Hur Marcel is an ordinary worked, but one day his anger about his working conditions and pay end up with his leading a crowd to protest to Caesar. When the rest of the crowd edges away, Marcel is taken into custody, bound for the Colosseum. But , desperate for spies, one of Rome's commanders frees him so that he can visit the catacombs and keep an eye out for spies and plotters. Somehow however he ends up in a gay bar in the catacombs and unbeknownst to him ends up chatting up a disguised Caesar. When he tells the disguised Caesar about his plans, he is again sent to the waiting bays in the Colosseum, only to be freed again by Cleopatra who is convinced he is her long lost brother.

    Whilst the film is clearly bot on a par with the humour of the incomparable Life of Brian I'm reluctant to judge it to heavily given the differences between French and English humour. Nevertheless there were a few bits where the humour survived the subtitling. Caesar and Ben-Hur getting their wires crossed at the aforementioned bar landed somewhere between the Carry On films and a sketch from the Two Ronnies. There are a number of deliberate anachronisms which are played for laughs and well as more biting satire around advertising. And there's the multiple repetitions of the same amusing sounding phrases which works so well in Denys Arcand's Decline of the American Empire

    But in the final act, the humour turns in a more biting, satirical, direction, as the deliberate anachronisms are used to mock modern day targets. Of course this is also very much in view in the Pythons' film which mocked the disintegration of the left wing into dissident splinter groups. Given the political machinations which are emerging as voting for the Labour party's leadership election gets under-way. Likewise Deux heures manages to nail contemporary targets but still remain fresh a generations later, so jokes about sports advertising, fear of offending the energy rich Saudis and unions protesting in the face of implacable union cut backs. This is all the more impressive as many comedic films sacrifice laughs in the final act for the sake of completing a satisfactory narrative. Here the film manages to be its most coherent and its most on-target.

    Eventually the film tries to echo Brian life-affirming nihilism. "Since we're all shit, why fight?" asks the huge crowd. It's unlikely to have featured in as many funerals as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" but its sentiment is not so very far away.

    With everyone having made their peace the previously opposing groups all settle down to an after-gladiatorial-show party. There, among the many novelties, is a television playing a news report. And the lead story? A census in Bethlehem has led to massive overcrowding. The news item goes on to focus on a lady who has given birth to her son in a stable. The guests are dismissive ("A kid born in a stable, big deal") but of course their way of life would ultimately be swept away by the kid in the stable.

    It's one last barb, this time at the film's audience, who may, through the epic films, watch the events of the Bible unfold on our screens, but often carry on unaffected by what we see.

    Whilst the humour is often quite pointed it's not really side-splittingly funny. Whilst it adopts so many of the traits of Life of Brian, the spoofing of the epics, the satire on contemporary events, the absurdity mixed up with seriousness and the attempt to land on something more positively humanistic, it never manages to be as hilarious as its predecessor. Late on in the film ons of the characters suggests we'll "still be laughing in the 20th century". Sadly that's not quite as true as it might have been.

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    Tuesday, August 18, 2015

    Battleship Potemkin in Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew

    On Sunday we held an outdoor silent film night and we watched Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. It was the first time I had seen the film and enjoyed finally seeing such a well-renown film and finding it matching up to its reputation. I could probably write a great deal about it, given the time, but for now I'll restrict myself to the observation that is most pertinent to this blog, namely how it relates to Pasolini's 1964 Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Saint Matthew).

    Pasolini was, as is often noted, a Marxist, and many commentators note the ways that he portrays Jesus as some kind of revolutionary leader. One of the other main things that is frequently discussed about his Jesus film is the eclectic mix of songs on the soundtrack. Strangely, though, I don't recall anyone ever mentioning how Pasolini includes one of the key pieces of music from the film's original score in Il Vangelo, particularly as it appears at such moment to make it clear it's a reference.*

    For those unfamiliar with Battleship Potemkin I should explain that it's a Soviet propaganda piece released to celebrate 20 years since the famous 1905 uprising of the crew of the titular vessel. In the film, at least, the person whose outcry starts the overthrow of the ship's oppressive leadership is one of only a few of his comrades killed in the battle that follows. There then follows a poignant scene where his body is brought to shore and the people of Odessa form a mighty procession to mourn his passing and celebrate his sacrifice and denounce the oppressive authorities.

    Eisenstein apparently wanted a new score to be recorded ever ten years. The first was apparently uninspiring but one written the following year by Edmund Meisel, stuck, at least until 1950 when Nikolai Kryukov wrote a new one for the film's 25 year anniversary. More recently a whole range of new scores have been written and performed for the film including ones by the Pet Shop Boys and, Roger Ebert's favourite version, Concrete. But, effectively, it's Miesel's version that is considered the "original" and, significantly, it's the only one that the BFI included in their recent Bluray release. (There's a nice piece on Miesel's and Kryukov's scores here by S. Lopez Figueroa).

    So it's interesting that Pasolini takes this music and uses it to accompany a few scenes of Jesus gaining widespread popularity whilst preaching his seven woes against the Jewish authorities. Like Battleship Potemkin there are scenes of swelling crowds with sometimes people rushing to join the throng, others being more reflective. Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees links to the angery speeches made against the Russian authorities.

    Whilst a few of the shots are formally reminiscent of Eisenstein's (such as the one above compared to the ones from Potemkin below), it's much more the overall impression from a sequence of similar shots, aided, at least for modern viewers, by the fact both films are in black and white, but more to do with the movement of people and the camera, the close ups, the expressions and so on. And of course it's the identical music.

    [Shazaming Pasolini's version of it brought up "La chanson des martyrs" (The song of the martyrs) from the album "Les Choeurs de L'Armée Rouge" (Choir of The Red Army) by Boris Alexandrov, but the dearth of any further information elsewhere suggests it was original to Meisel.]
    But as well as this being the moment when Jesus is at his most revolutionary, it's also the moment when its starts to look like his demise is imminent. So the music links him to the Russian revolutionary seaman Vakulinchuk who loses his life in the fight for freedom and the audience knows that Jesus' life will be similarly lost.

    Watching the scenes from Pasolni's film again, I'm also struck by the way the Roman soldiers appear in the scene. In almost all Jesus films the soldiers are the enemy, usually totally dehumanised, barring the centurion who will convert as Jesus dies. But the rank and file are usually presented as little more than cogs in the machine that will ultimately crush this Jewish saviour. Pasolini's film does particularly develop these soldiers into three dimensional characters.

    Apart from anything the nature of the project leaves them no dialogue, but they are significantly more sympathetic here than in most films. And I think that rests as much on these scenes as anything. Jesus is preaching revolution and the soldiers are happy to let it go on, interested, even, in what is being said. And in the light of Eisenstein's film this becomes a little more obvious why. Pasolini's portrayal is not because they, like him, is Italian. It's because they, like his heroes, are part of the proletariat. Indeed in Eisenstein's film it is the fighting men of the navy who first rise up. Jesus' revolutionary message, then, is for them and indeed to Pasolini they are part of the crowd rather than just a means to control it.

    Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that this connection is overlooked. Not only are the majority of those studying Jesus and film from the theology side of the equation, rather than the film studies, but also it's worth remembering when Pasolini's film was released. In 1964 (or 1966 in the US), the Cold War was at its peak. McCarthyism had reached its zenith in the previous decade and the ban on Battleship Potemkin in the UK had only been lifted because its widespread distribution was seen as unviable.

    I think it is very significant though. To any film student, least of all an avowed Marxist, Battleship Potemkin is a critical film. And Pasolini's link with it is deliberate and full of meaning.


    *I must confess this statement is built on combination of recollection, Googling and checking the key books on the subject. I'm sure someone has made the connection before. I just don't recall anyone saying it and it appears (from an admittedly briefish scan) that not one of Babbington, Evans, Stern, Jefford, Debona, Walsh, Tatum, Reinhartz or Baugh mention it in their tomes.

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    Friday, August 07, 2015

    How the Internet Revolutionised the Bible-and-Film

    Occasionally I’ve had the pleasure of talking with those who used to study the Bible on Film in the 80s and early 90s and it’s clear that this was a vastly different time to today. One thing is certain: the internet has revolutionised the study of film and religion.

    Despite those fleeting conversations, I’m somewhat lacking in a point of comparison as my own studies in this area only really began around 1999 and by then the internet revolution was certainly well under way. I recall using a site I’d heard a little bit about called Amazon* to get hold of, what I then considered obscure, old Jesus films like King of Kings (1961)

    Indeed one of the main ways that the internet has changed study of film and theology is that it has made a far greater range of films readily available. I would have been fortunate to ever have happened upon King of Kings in a shop (though it did happen two years later), but here I could order it at a click of a button. As things have progressed far more films have become available on Amazon and importing films from other countries through Amazon has become far simpler.

    This convenience has led to more people wanting such films creating more demand, which has, in turn, allowed a greater number of film releases to be viable. Better communications and infrastructure have radically improved the numbers of titles those studying in the field can access. Furthermore, film-collectors have been able to exchange unreleased movies and many films are available on sites such as YouTube*.

    A further development from this is that now filmmakers are also able to sell to their audience directly, with no need to work through studios, distributors and other historic channels. Releasing straight to DVD and selling them direct through a website has become evermore popular. Indeed a more recent development is crowdfunding where filmmakers try and get a broad base of low value investors to invest before films are made, and whilst not many films have made it through to the final stage of this, churches and religious organisations have certainly been a popular target market for “grassroots” marketing campaigns run primarily through the web.

    Even more mainstream films now use the web to build awareness, well in advance, of their product’s release. This has meant that discussion about a film has begun well in advance, with news about casting, directors’ and writers’ previous work, filming locations and even (in some cases) parts of the script, all being dissected months before the opening night. Scholars have been able to look for likely patterns and themes that a filmmaker might continue to explore in the new movie.

    In part this has been possible due to other new internet initiatives such as the Internet Movie Database* (IMDb for short). Prior to the emergence of the web, viewers would have to rely on their memories combined with trawling through written lists of cast and crew from a diverse and disparate range of sources. Now the IMDb makes all this possible at a click of a button. It’s easy to look up, say, a director’s previous work and identify patterns, or interests. It also provides a variety of other information about a film, again in fashion that is extremely simple to access. Other also provide more detailed information on how popular a film is with the paying public (such as sites Box Office Mojo*) or with critics (Rotten Tomatoes*) providing a vital resource for those interested in reception studies.

    There’s one other area which has been significant in the blossoming in the study of film and religion and that’s online discussion. Discussion fora and blogs have democratised the discussion allowing anyone to have their say. Whilst the comments in threads on YouTube highlight the significant downsides of this new democracy, more formal, and well-moderated discussion forums have provided a fruitful source of discussion. These have been particularly beneficial in interdisciplinary areas such as film and religion as they allow experts from either field to cross-pollinate sharing their expertise and learning from the insights of others. Film studies experts, who may have a passing interest in religion due to their own faith, can fly the flag for some of the great directors and highlight how certain films relate to others. Previously, few people in a theology department had much of a knowledge of the neo-realist movement that so informed Pier Paolo Pasolini for example. Conversely, biblical scholars with a bit of a fondness for the cinema could bring their theological expertise to the table. Not many film students had a sufficiently deep grounding in Gnosticism to appreciate its expression in The Matrix.

    Films discussion fora such as Arts and Faith* have enabled this rubbing shoulders and cross-pollination of ideas to proliferate, introducing new cinematic movements and theological ideas to those who were previously unfamiliar with them. It’s resulted in a great deal of growth on both sides of the divide - indeed it has ceased to be a divide.

    To a lesser extent, this has also happened with weblogs, particularly with scholars able to respond to one another in a longer more considered form than in off-the-cuff comments, but far swifter than by publishing papers in journals or delivering them at conferences. Blogs have also enabled scholars to plough their very specific furrows, being able to find a wider audience for their specific niche than was ever possible prior to the popularisation of the internet. Furthermore self-publishing on a blog has enabled scholars to either make their ideas available to the public for free (in contrast with paid for journals - a significant barrier to those outside of academia), or even, as scholars such as Bart Ehrman* have shown, to generate a small income for their toil. Whilst there is a still, in some circles, a strange dedication to words written on dead tree, in many circles ideas are now assessed based on their own merit, rather than on the format in which it has been published, or the qualifications of the writer. Proper formal training and peer review still bring significant benefits, of course, but this new context has enabled more voices and their work and ideas to be judged on merit.

    The result of these changes - a wider, more available, range of films; more efficient resources for studying both the Bible and cinema; an inter-disciplinary, and less-exclusive sharing of ideas - has transformed the study of religion and film seeing a proliferation of books published on the subject, conference papers, blogs, journal articles, podcasts, university courses and so on. But hopefully it’s not just about output. Hopefully the explosion in this field has also enabled us to understand the human condition with far greater depth and appreciation for who we are.


    *Other websites attempting to do the same thing are available, although those quoted are considered to be the leader in their field.

    Sunday, August 02, 2015

    Su Re (The King, 2012)

    Giovanni Columbu’s Su Re was released with so little aplomb in 2012 that the majority of Jesus film commentators, including myself, seemed to completely miss it. It’s a quiet, humble, non-showy and ultimately low budget marketing strategy that is so typical of the film itself.

    Shot on the island of Sardinia, using hand-held cameras and putting the island’s stark and dramatic scenery to great effect, Columbu’s Jesus film looks quite unlike any before it. It’s a dirty, grubby film, brought out by graying filters and gritty filmstock. It’s not hard to imagine someone feeling forsaken here, least of all a peasant criminal about to be tortured to death by a bunch of men who haven’t seen a civilised home for years and for whom the sadistic sport of a good crucifixion is at least some sort of diversion.

    Like Pasolini before him, Columbu uses a cast of largely non-professional actors and who, whether for extra realism or for financial reasons, were told to bring along their own rough clothes for the “costumes”. Although some cloaks were provided, it’s unusual to see Jesus crucified in a pair of rough short trousers, at once both factually anachronistic, yet more truthful than decades of whitish loincloths. It’s the kind of move that you would expect to be glaring, but never really feels that out of place.

    Indeed what Columbu does so successfully despite, or perhaps even because of, such anachronisms, is build a world that feels credibly like the one in which Jesus may have inhabited. Recent Jesus films may have progressed from the pristine sixties crowds of extras, but the odd dab of dirty greasepaint has rarely gone more than skin deep, and even then it’s failed to hide pampered faces and persistently denticured teeth.

    The epitome of this approach is in Columbu’s choice of Fiorenzu Mattu to play Jesus. Christians have long debated whether the words from Isaiah 53:2, recited at the start of the film, meant that Jesus was ugly. There are all kinds of problems with that interpretation, but certainly Mattu fits more closely with the idea that there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”. I have no idea if Columbu is familiar with Colin Blakeley’s performance as Jesus in Son of Man (1969), but certainly that is the only Jesus film I can think of which doesn’t portray Jesus as lean and attractive.

    In using non-professional actors with real, unadorned faces Columbu is very much following in the footsteps of Pasolini, but the similarities go beyond that. Columbu includes all kinds of nods to his countryman’s famous hagiopic, from the use of the handheld camera to the composition of some of the shots, even down to come of the choices of headwear. Like Pasolini he dwells on close ups of faces, yet the person speaking is, not infrequently, off screen.

    Yet Pasolini is not the only director whose work is an apparent influence. The film’s slow, lingering pacing and absence of soundtrack is reminiscent of another Italian director’s work, Albert Serra’s El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008). Su Re is a meditative piece placing the viewer in the moment and involving him or her in proceedings rather than leaving them as an observer from a distance.

    One of the ways this is most noticeably achieved is by the use of non-linear narrative. Whilst Bible films often tinker with the chronology of certain events, that tends to be to merely moving the occasional scene out of order to improve the drama’s pacing. Here though the scenes are all jumbled up a la Pulp Fiction. The result is to transform a story which is known and familiar to its audience into something unpredictable and unsettling. It’s immediately disorientating to find the crucifixion featuring so early in the film, only to be followed up with one of the scenes that closely precedes it. The film jumps back and back and then forwards again, often revisiting the same scene from different perspectives.

    Some of the comments I read about this film before seeing it suggested it emphasised the differences in the gospels. However, this isn’t so much a deliberate contrasting of the scene in one gospel with the same scene in another; showing the cock crowing differing numbers of times, for example. No, it’s more in the process of retelling the same scene from different angles, or in a slightly different way. It doesn’t seem to go out of it’s way to stress the discontinuity; even less to slavish prioritise one gospel over the others. It’s more that narrative continuity itself doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. This, in itself, emphasises the shifting nature of gospel truth. The Bible doesn’t give us a single video camera perspective of what happens, it gives us different written accounts drawn from written and oral sources all of which bring with them their own interpretations and theology. In each gospel the sands have shifted slightly, not to reveal a radically different and contradictory new version of events, but just a different landscape upon which the events play out. Su Re isn’t a nit-picker led exposé: it just captures this story-like nature of the gospels.

    The sense of disorientation is also heightened by the way the different scenes segue into one another. It’s not always clear when one scene ends and a new one begins. This, combined with the way the film jumps back to slightly earlier scenes, gives a sense of a flashback, or accessing earlier memories, only we’re not just inside the head of one specific person. It highlights how the gospels were drawn, in part, from the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, whilst also immersing the viewer in the action on display. It's more an invitation to look at Jesus' last hours again, in a different light; to experience them as if you were present. The result is that, in contrast the overwhelming majority of Jesus films, Su Re doesn't seem to be pushing one particular idea about who Jesus is - it's very much left to the viewer's interpretation.

    This is possible, in part, because the film, in the tradition of the passion play, deals only with the events of Jesus' death. The miracles and his compassionate acts have largely been and gone, as has his teaching ministry. But perhaps the biggest difference between Su Re and other films in the passion play tradition is that Jesus seems far less in control of the events that are unfolding: Jesus never defiantly drags himself up in the middle of his scourging, nor does he speak to the authorities that are trying him with that knowing sense of confidence and certainty.

    The result is, perhaps for the first time in film, a focus on Jesus as a victim. Stripped of his prior ministry and his future glory we behold the man: forsaken, confused, scared and alone. Many will see that as weakness, forgetting, perhaps, the man in the olive grove sweating blood and praying desperately that this suffering be taken from him. It's rather familiar, however, to those well-versed in another part of Isaiah 53. "Oppressed...afflicted..like a lamb to the slaughter". Columbu's Jesus is an outsider, an unbeautiful victim deserted and discarded in an overlooked corner of the empire of Rome. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53 there is hope and a meaning to all we see here. But it should do us good to remember that at this point in Jesus' life, that may not readily have come to mind.