• 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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