• 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


    Monday, November 30, 2015

    Dave and the Giant Pickle (1996)

    One of the films I didn't cover in last year's whistle stop tour of David movies was this entry into the popular Veggie-Tales series, Dave and the Giant Pickle. As with most of the other episodes in this series, the leading characters are played by CGI animated, anthropomorphic vegetables in a light hearted manner that seeks to each the kids who comprise its audience with a life lesson. Indeed so well is this lesson-for-the-day aspect established that it no only does it have it's only jingle, but the characters' boredom at this repetitive formula is played for laughs.

    The story starts in a psychologist's office where Larry the Cucumber is being treated for what will turn out to be low self-esteem. There's a flashback to the story of David which starts with David trying to control his father's sheep, and his brother's abuse of him, But then a messenger arrives to announce the arrival of Goliath - sorry the, um, Giant Pickle, . Then one day David brings his brothers lunch, is incensed by the Giant Pickle denouncing God and vows to defeat his. Goliath makes his challenge no-one from Israel dare fight him; No-one that is, except for David, who, incensed by the pickle's impudence, tells Saul he will fight the pickle. Saul attempts to kit out David in his own armour, but David goes commando, take up his sling and turns the pickle into relish.

    Sorry, that's my joke rather than a line from the film.

    There are a couple of interesting moments. Firstly, the arrival of Goliath is prefigured by the same shaking water shot that Spielberg used to such great effect in Jurassic Park (1993) three years earlier. Other contemporary references include one of David's brothers appreciating the cheese filled crust to his Pizza and a series of Rorschach spots which increasingly look like something rather than being entirely random. Maybe that's just me.

    But in a fortnight where we've been marketing the 20th anniversary of the release of Toy Story it was amazing to see how badly the CGI on this film compared to that. The CGI has not aged at all well.

    That said, the kids loved it, and some of the tunes have come back to us through the day. So whilst Dave and the Giant Pickle might not be great art, it certainly amused and engaged its target audience.

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    Saturday, November 28, 2015

    Relating Canonicity to the Bible and Film

    I wanted to throw out a few thoughts about the idea of canonicity and Bible Films. The first thing to say is that there are perhaps three, somewhat related ideas at play here.

    The first is the idea of how the biblical canon has been portrayed in films. Which parts of the Bible have been covered a lot and, in contrast, which have barely been given any attention whatsoever by filmmakers? That set of ideas could perhaps be grouped by the subtitle "The Biblical Canon on Film". How evenly has the biblical canon been portrayed in the medium of film?

    Leading on from that, there's a question which arises regarding the frequency with which certain groups of characters and subjects feature in such portrayals relative to other characters and subjects. There are numerous films about Samson, but practically zero about Deborah, despite the fact their significance and prominence in the text of the Bible is roughly equal. Why is it that whenever a series such as The History Channel's The Bible goes into production the same few stories inevitably end up being adapted? Do certain stories almost self-select themselves for inclusion and, if so, why? I guess this could be subtitled "Does film have a canon of Bible stories?"

    Finally there's also the question of whether, as film as as medium gets older, a canon of particular Bible films is beginning to emerge. When the Bible on film is discussed, which are the titles that come up again and again, and perhaps even given a prominence that outstrips their true significance. This question could summarised as "Is there a canon of Bible films?"

    So over the next few posts I'm going to unpack these various ideas, taking a post for each of those areas. It's probably best however if I start by making a few observations on the notion of canonicity and drawing out what its key elements are if it's to be used as a metaphor in these differing ways. That'll be the subject of my next post and I'll taken things from there.


    Monday, November 23, 2015

    The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film

    Editor: Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    Publisher: Walter de Gruyter
    Date: February 15, 2016
    Language: English
    Length: 900 pages*
    Price (Hardback/eBook): £180/$335
    ISBN: 978-1614515616

    It gives me great pleasure to announce the release of this two-volume work on the Bible in Film. A large part of the pleasure comes from the knowledge that two of the chapters in it will be mine, but also it looks set to be the the most comprehensive work on the subject to date with work from most of the leading scholars in this area. First here's the official blurb from the publisher's website:
    This volume contains a comprehensive collection of original studies by well-known scholars focusing on the Bible’s wide-ranging reception in world cinema. Part I examines the rich cinematic afterlives of selected characters from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Part II considers issues of biblical reception across a wide array of film genres, ranging from noir to anime. Part III features directors, from Lee Chang-dong to the Coen brothers, whose body of work reveals an enduring fascination with biblical texts and motifs. Part IV offers topical essays on cinema’s treatment of selected biblical themes (e.g., redemption, lament, apocalyptic), particular interpretive lenses (e.g., feminist interpretation, queer theory), and windows into biblical reception in a variety of world cinemas (e.g., Indian, Israeli, and Third Cinema). This handbook is intended for scholars of the Bible, religion, and film as well as for a wider general audience
    Based on the proofing copy I have seen it seems that his information is a little out of date. For a start it's now split into two volumes, with six parts in total. *Secondly, whereas the data in circulation at the moment suggests that it will be 710 pages, I suspect the final manuscript will be pushing 900. I've excerpted the contents pages below

    I have one chapter in each volume. In the first I have an essay on the depiction of (King) David in film a character who has, hitherto, been rather overlooked by Bible film scholars. But I'm particularly proud of my contribution to the second part, a chapter on Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini is such a great, influential, but - these days - under-appreciated film-maker that it feels like a real honour to write about him. I've been learning some Italian, as much spurred on by my appreciation of his films, and I'm quite looking forward to being able to say I've been published on Rossellini.

    It's also a tremendous honour to be published alongside so many of the writers whose work I have appreciated over the last 15 or so years as well as getting the chance to encounter some new (to me) names as well.

    At 710-900 pages and £180/$335 a copy it's hardly for the casual reader (Amazon even gives it's weight as 1.7lbs!) and I imagine most copies will end up in academic libraries. Still I imagine if it sells well there may be a paperback release at some stage at a substantially lower cost. Certainly if you do get a chance to get hold of a copy I would strongly recommend it.

    VOLUME 1
    Part I: Biblical Characters and Stories (Hebrew Bible)

    1. In the Beginning: Adam and Eve in Film
    - Theresa Sanders
    2. Noah and the Flood: A Cinematic Deluge
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    3. It’s all in the Family: The Patriarchs of Genesis in Film
    - Peter T. Chattaway
    4. The Cinematic Moses
    - Jennifer L. Koosed
    5. Samson and Delilah in Film
    - J. Cheryl Exum
    6. There Might be Giants: King David on the Big (and Small) Screen
    - Matthew Page
    7. Esther in Film
    - Carl S. Ehrlich

    Part II: Film Genres and Film Media
    8. Scripture on Silent Film
    - David J. Shepherd
    9. Film Noir and the Bible
    - Robert Ellis
    10. The Bible Epic
    - Adele Reinhartz
    11. Western Text(s): The Bible and the Movies of the Wild, Wild West
    - Robert Paul Seesengood
    12. Mysteries of the Bible (Documentary) Revealed: The Bible in Popular Non-Fiction and Documentary Film
    - Robert Paul Seesengood
    13. From Skepticism to Piety: The Bible and Horror Films
    - Mary Ann Beavis
    14. “Moses’ DVD Collection”: The Bible and Science Fiction Film
    - Frauke Uhlenbruch
    15. The Word Made Gag: Biblical Reception in Film Comedy
    - Terry Lindvall and Chris Lindvall
    16. Drawing (on) the Text: Biblical Reception in Animated Films
    - R. Christopher Heard
    17. Anime and the Bible
    - Fumi Ogura and N. Frances Hioki

    Part III: Biblical Themes and Genres
    18. God at the Movies
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    19. Satan in Cinema
    - Peter Malone
    20. Creation and Origins in Film
    - Gaye Williams Ortiz
    21. The Book of Job in the Movies: On Cinema‘s Exploration of Theodicy and the Hiddenness of God
    - Reinhold Zwick
    22. Lament in Film and Film as Lament
    - Matthew S. Rindge
    23. What Lies beyond? Biblical Images of Death and Afterlife in Film
    - Sandie Gravett
    24. This is the End: Apocalyptic Moments in Cinema
    - Tina Pippin

    VOLUME 2
    Part I: Biblical Characters and Stories (New Testament)

    1. Jesus and the Gospels at the Movies
    - W. Barnes Tatum
    2. Women in the Cinematic Gospels
    - Catherine O’Brien
    3. Judas as Portrayed in Film
    - Carol A. Hebron
    4. Jews and Judaism in Bible Films
    - Clayton N. Jefford
    5. Paul and the Early Church in Film
    - Richard Walsh
    6. Mythic Relevance of Revelation in Film
    - Meghan Alexander Beddingfield

    Part II: Cinemas and Auteurs
    7. David Wark Griffith: Filming the Bible as the U.S. Story
    - Richard Walsh
    8. Alice Guy Blaché and Gene Gauntier: Bringing New Perspectives to Film
    - Carol A. Hebron
    9. Oscar Micheaux’s Within our Gates: Emergent History and a Gospel of Middle-Class Liberation
    - Nathan Jumper
    10. Cecil B. Demille: Hollywood’s Lay Preacher
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    11. Reframing Jesus: Dreyer’s Lifelong Passion
    - Caroline Vander Stichele
    12. Luis Buñuel: Atheist by the Grace of God
    - J. Sage Elwell
    13. Robert Bresson: Biblical Resonance from a Christian Atheist
    - Sara Anson Vaux
    14. Roberto Rossellini: From Spiritual Searcher to History’s Documentarian
    - Matthew Page
    15. Federico Fellini: From Catholicism to the Collective Unconscious
    - Marie-Therese Maeder
    16. John Huston: The Atheistic Noah
    - Gaye Williams Ortiz
    17. Stanley Kubrick: Midrashic Movie Maker
    - Nathan Abrams
    18. In the Wake of the Bible: Krzysztof Kieślowski and the Residual Divine in Contemporary Life
    - Joseph G. Kickasola
    19. Peter Weir: Man of Mystery, Mysticism, and the Mundane
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    20. Cheick Oumar Sissoko: West African Activist and Storyteller
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    21. Lee Chang-Dong: Exploring the Hidden Christ
    - Fumi Ogura and N. Frances Hioki
    22. Mark Dornford-May: Transposing the Classic
    - Samuel D. Giere
    23. Serious Men: Scripture in the Coen Brothers Films
    - J. R. Daniel Kirk
    24. Liberative Visions: BiblicaL Reception in Third Cinema
    - Antonio D. Sison
    25. The Reception of Biblical Films in India: Observations and a Case Study
    - Dwight H. Friesen
    26. “A Ram Butts his Broad Horns again and again against the Wall of the House”: The Binding Myth in Israeli Film
    - Anat Y. Zanger

    Part III: Voices from the Margins
    27. Judaism and Antisemitism in Bible Movies
    - Adele Reinhartz
    28. Ethnicity and Biblical Reception in Eve and the Fire Horse
    - Stephenson Humphries-Brooks
    29. A Slave Narrative for the “Post-Racial” Obama Age
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    30. The Temptation of Noah: The Debate about Patriarchal Violence in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah
    - Erin Runions
    31. Gay Male Villains in Biblical Epic Films
    - Richard A. Lindsay
    32. Imperialism in New Testament Films
    - Jeremy Punt

    *This is based on the number of pages in the proofing copies I have seen. Final version may differ significantly.

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    Thoughts on the "Banned" CofE Advert

    There's been some discussion about this story in the press and on social media and so whilst this isn't technically a post about the Bible and film, it is sort of about church sponsored films being shown, or not shown, in the cinema.

    Details are still emerging about this story - and that does kind of make me nervous about commentating. Usually stories like these grow and change as the various details seep out, and I suspect this is the case here.

    The facts, as I understand them at least, are these. The Church of England has made an advert they wanted to show in cinemas before the new Star Wars film in the run up to Christmas, but the company that controls adverts in the majority of the UK's cinemas - Digital Cinema Media - have a policy against showing religious adverts.

    Many within the church are crying foul - although this being the CofE they are wisely cautious about using the term persecution - with the CofE's director of communications saying he finds it "bewildering". The more vocal of the atheistic groups are voicing their support of DCM's policy, pointing out that the church doesn't have "an automatic right to foist its opinions" and so on. That said whilst Keith Porteous Wood supports the ban, Richard Dawkins, somewhat unexpectedly, doesn't, which places him, rather usunually, in the same camp as Giles Fraser.

    All of which means it's probably just as well that the church didn't include a gay, cake-baker saying "give us today our daily bread", or else the internet make have imploded. Again.

    A couple of observations at this point. Firstly, this isn't about free speech, it's about a business making business decisions. I don't think DCM will struggle to fill the pre-Star Wars slots, but at the same time they could probably sell them to the highest bidder and in this case one imagines the bidding could go quite high (which maybe raises the issue of why the church is seeking to spend absolutely top whack to fill an advertising slot for a not particularly outstanding quality video advert).

    Secondly, at what point did the CofE become aware of the cinema's policy? I find it very hard to believe that the church didn't know about this in advance. In 2006 our local church tied to run some form of promotion at the cinema around the release of The Nativity Story. Despite, or quite possibly because of, a similar campaign around The Passion of The Christ (which competing churches turned into an undignified scrabble to grab the attention of the few cinemagoers to attend the film) we were told their policy was now, no religious adverts. And the UK environment has moved further in that direction ever since.

    So if the church didn't discover it until after it had spent a significant amount of money creating the campaign and doing all the filming, then it suggests a level of incompetence which they should be beyond. But if they knew before then this looks even more like the church trying to gain some free publicity by creating a media storm around the issue and driving traffic to their website and that of the "Just Pray" campaign the advert is meant to promote.

    DCM's defence will be that they have a policy so they can treat all religions equally. But people will counter there is a clear difference between the CofE and the Taliban and they should be able to tell. Perhaps, but at some point there will come a dividing line and I can understand why the company might wash its hands of the whole issue, even if it might hit its profits. But it will be interesting to see where this story goes. Were there discussions between the two parties in private or did the CofE just throw itself into a media storm in the spirit of "all publicity is good publicity"? Perhaps DCM had made encouraging noises and then got cold feet? It will be interesting to see where this story goes from here. Either way I think the CofE has found a far cheaper way to gain the attention of it's intended audience, even if it won't be in 3D Imax.

    Thursday, November 19, 2015

    The Red Tent - Scene Guide

    I reviewed Roger Young's adaptation of The Red Tent a few weeks back, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the way the scenes relate to the text in Genesis. However, in contrast to my usual scene guide format I'm not going to point out where there's extra-biblical material.
    Part 1
    Jacob and Rachel meet - (Gen.29:1-14)
    Jacob marries Leah - (Gen.29:15-26)
    Leah's sons born - (Gen.29:31-35; 30:17-20)
    Birth of Dinah - (Gen.30:21)
    Joseph's coat - (Gen.37:2-7
    Jacob splits from Laban - (Gen.31:1-18)
    Jacob reconciled to Esau - (Gen.33:1-17)
    Move to Shechem - (Gen.33:18-20)
    Rachel's idols - (Gen.31:19,30-35)
    Dinah and Shechem meet - (Gen.34:1,3)
    Dinah And Shechem marry - (Gen.34:2,4)
    Hamor and Jacob meet - (Gen.34:5-19)
    Shechemites circumcised - (Gen.34:20-24)
    Shechemites slaughtered - (Gen.34:25-29)

    Part 2
    Jacob denounces Simeon and Levi - (Gen.34:30-31)
    [A lot of extra-biblical material]
    Joseph sold into slavery - (Gen.37:17-36)
    [A lot of extra-biblical material]
    Jacob reunited with Joseph - (Gen.46:26-30)
    Death of Jacob - (Gen.49:29-50:14)
    A Few Notes
    As you would expect for a 3 hour film that is essentially based on a single chapter of Genesis Red Tent covers chapter 34 and those around it pretty comprehensively, albeit with a radically revised interpretation of the key verses in that chapter (34:1-4). A quick glance a above shows that all of the chapters between chapters 29-37 get referenced at some point, with the excuseable exception of Genesis 36 which is jus a list of Esau's descendants and the subsequent rulers of Edom.

    That said a few key passages do get omitted and a couple of these are fairly interesting. Perhaps the most curious exclusion is that despite the numerous birthing scenes, we don' get to see Rachel giving birth (and if I remember rightly the same is true of Bilhah and Zilpah). This seems strange seeing the film's emphasis on sisterhood and motherhood, and given Rachel's particular expertise in midwifery i would have been interesting to see the roles reversed.

    Another important scene from the Biblical story that is largely passed over here is Jacob wrestling with God the night before his confrontation with Esau. It's not hard to see why this is played down. The supernatural aspects of the whole story are largely in he background here. It's presented as a human story rather than one driven by a divine plan. An incident where God/an angel appears in bodily form to wrestle with God would seem somewhat out of step with the rest of the film. Furthermore, nothing in this parts of the origins of Israel narrative does more to underline Jacob's importance at the head of the tribe and to present him as the key figure. Again his goes against the grain of the story tellers' emphasis on he women of the tribe.

    It would have been similarly contrary to the filmmakers' intentions to include the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38). In many ways this mini-series is about exploring a tangent to the Jacob story. The story of Tamar represents another tangent to that story, so the connection here is slight anyway. Furthermore the feint suggestion of disharmony between the leading women of Israel also would go against the narrative flow that is being presented.

    In contrast to those omissions it's noticeable that the various episodes largely follow their biblical order. This is hardly unique to The Red Tent despite the fact that there's some evidence to suggest that the biblical order is not strictly chronological. Jacob's gift of the coat of many colours/special sleeves is brought forward a little, the disclosure about Rachel hiding her father's icons is moved back, but it's largely all in tact.

    There are three other versions of this story that spring to mind. The New Media Bible Genesis is committed to following the story more or less word for word (although it misses out all of the Tower of Babel - go figure), so naturally this follows the biblical order. Roger Young's other take on this story, Joseph (1995), tells the earlier parts of Joseph's life in flashback, so the order is different, but it's not really subversive in anyway, it's just a narrative device. The fact that this episode appears in the Joseph entry in this series, rather than the Jacob section might be significant as some of the episodes there occur after this incident.

    In contrast, Cheick Oumar Sissoko's La genèse rearranges things to emphasise a time of crisis for Jacob's tribe. When the film starts, Jacob is already mourning Joseph (Gen. 37), but he has not yet been reconciled with Esau (Gen.33). And the film's first major event is rape of Dinah (ch. 34). As Peter Chattaway summarises "Jacob is ineffectual in dealing with the rape of his daughter, and in making peace with Esau for that matter, because he has been mourning the apparent death of Joseph for 20 months, and he simply can't be bothered to leave his tent...". Compared to this The Red Tent's changes are just tweaks to make the story flow a little more easily.

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    Sunday, November 15, 2015

    The Robe (1953)

    The Robe is famous for being the first major widescreen movie. It's a distinction that brings it far greater attention than the spate of other Roman-Christian movies released around the same time but means that it's other achievements are somewhat overlooked. It is, for example, considered to be one if the great composer Alfred Newman's best scores, indeed it's one of the very few Bible film scores I listen to other than when watching the film itself. At times subdued, subtle and whimsical. At times bombastic, dominating and capturing all the self assured pomp of the Roman Empire at it's height. Yet the same refrains weave in and out linking the characters and tracing their journeys.

    Which isn't to say the film, based on Lloyd C. Douglas's novel, doesn't have it's weaknesses. For one thing the advantages of the new technology are still being realised. Many of the compositions aren't quite right either leaving things too cramped in the middle, or leaving too much space there. And some of the performances, Victor Mature's in particularly, are the kind that bring the genre into disrepute. The most common charge is of being overly camp, but this doesn't fully do it justice. A degree of camp is clearly intended, and arguably merited, for Jay Robinson's performance as Caligula, but it still goes over the top and clashes with the heavily reverential tone of many parts of the film. Mature's problem is different. With him it's not so much that he is intending to be camp, but over doing it, but that he appears to be be trying to play it down the line, but ends up in the camp camp anyway. There's just a desperate earnestness in his face which nevertheless fails to convince. But then perhaps that's because he knew that some of the dialogue is so weak that even Olivier would have struggled to redeem it.

    Which isn't to say that moments of the film aren't transcendent and superbly executed. Andrew Greeley describes Douglas's decision to keep Jesus off-stage as "a master stroke of narrative technique" and it's hard to disagree. Recently I segued scores of short clips from Jesus films into one short telling of the life of Christ and this was the one I chose for the Via Dolorosa. Whether it was the novel's influence or the impact of the Hayes Code, the decision was made not to show Jesus' face at all during the film meaning that the camera's attention is far more focused on the reactions of those watching it. And it's one scene where Mature, who becomes the focus of the scene in Jesus' "absence", absolutely nails it. The score dominates everything here. There is almost no intra-diegetic sound here at all save the occasional sound of a cracked whip. Cruel and powerful sounding it grinds on mercilessly and inevitably to the next scene's awful climax. By focussing on the horror of the faces of the onlooking cloud it becomes far more powerful than Mel Gibson's relentlessly unflinching look at the brutality itself. They know the awfulness of the fate that awaits Jesus and it haunts not only them, but through their faces us too.

    Moments later the film's other great scene unfolds, again due in part to the decision keep the face of Jesus hidden. Instead the camera focuses on the soldiers who get on with the job, and it's perks, whilst being lashed by the wind and the rain, stuck in a part of the world they despise. They care not one bit about the man who is dying, they just want him to get on with it so they can get back to the barracks. By opting to defer until later the moment at which Richard Burton's tribune Marcellus sees the light the scene regains it's tension. Burton is humanised by his desire to be professional and not completely unaffected by his prisoner's suffering, but again the focus is one those on the fringes of the traditional story.

    There's two other moments that linger in the memory [the first is as Richard Boone's Pontius Pilate absent mindedly asks for the bowl to wash his hands just moments after he has already made his famously symbolical gesture. The confusion on his face as his servant respectfully reminds him of his error and Boone's noirishly delivered response "Did I? So I did." conjure up an image that is no less effective for being historically unlikely.

    The other is the film's very final moment as Jean Simmons's Diana chooses to accompany Marcellus to his death for a faith she has so newly discovered that she barely comprehends it. The scene itself is not particularly well exceptional and it's marred by the worst of Robinson's excesses. Even the moment when Diana chooses death with Christ/Marcellus over life without them and the start of the procession to their fate is unexceptional. Yet somehow by the time they reach the end of the hall way, figuratively if not actually joined in union with Christ, something has changed and there is a moment which transports the viewer to another place.

    Simmons role is not insignificant Babington and Evans in their seminal work on Biblical Epics suggest that the way Mature's purity of mind contrasts with the viable sexuality of his body embodies the tension at the heart of the biblical between morality and sexuality1. As the star of several such epics a good case can be made therefore for Simmons as Mature's female equivalent. Whilst her attractiveness and sexuality were always apparent, a strong morality seemed to run through the majority of her roles. This, then, endows The Robe with one other distinction: whilst the king and queen of the biblical epic don't share much screen time, it does at least cast Simmons and Mature together and it interweaves the fictional story of Marcellus' spiritual death and resurrection impressively with that of the physical death of Jesus.

    1 - Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", Manchester University Press ND, 1993, p.227


    Thursday, November 12, 2015

    Lucifer (2014)

    My wife is an artist and quite a few years ago now she went through a phase of painting on circular canvases. It's a concept that goes at least as far back as Hieronymus Bosch's works such as "Christ Crowned with Thorns" and "Table of the Seven Deadly Sins". It seems strange, then, that Gust Van den Berghe's Lucifer is apparently the first film to work within a circular frame.

    I say that with certain caveats. Firstly, I can't claim that no-one who has ever turned on a camera has ever ended up with a circularly framed film, but Van den Bergh's picture is hardly a major film and yet it certainly seems to be the biggest film to have made this particular artistic choice. Secondly, many of the very earliest moving images featured something akin to a circular image due to the shapes of the lenses, and perhaps as a result the iris shot was far more common then as it was now.

    Indeed at times Lucifer feels a little like a long tribute to the iris shot and the way it focusses the viewers attention on a particular part of the shot. That said at other points, the composition doesn't really work in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of some of the first widescreen films which struggles to adjust to the possibilities of their new frame. The masked screen works, at times, like a porthole - a portal to another world. At it's best it's a little bit like some of those scenes from inside John Malkovich's head in Being John Malkovich.

    More significantly, at times the circularity of the shot is about more than masking the corners, but the use of a pioneering new technique which Van den Bergh has called Tondoscope (from the Italian for circular, rotondo) which shoots through an optical circular mirror to capture a 360 degree image (such as that below). This distorts the image but crams in all the detail round the edge of the work, which is strongly reminiscent of some of Bosch's work, indeed the Tondoscope logo is based on one of Bosch's circular paintings - "Seven Deadly Sins".

    There's always a question with films which pioneer a new technique as to whether they are able to transcend that technique and still be a good film in their own right. It's not quite so straightforward a question with Lucifer because those Tondoscope images are meant to draw attention to the technique itself and it's historic resonances, but the masked shots do well enough as well. Certainly there are moments when I forgot about the frame and got absorbed with what was happening within it.
    The circle also brings with it a sense of perfection and completeness and these are highly suited to the film's subject matter - hardly inconsequential. Lucifer is loosely based on Joost Van Den Vondel's 1654 play about the eponymous anti-hero's fall from heaven. Van Den Vondel's play pre-dates "Paradise Lost" by 13 years and many point out his influence on Milton's work. The story is relocated to an ultra rural, 'modern day', Mexico. This is outside the usual time frames for Lucifer's fall from heaven, but it certainly makes things more interesting. Lucifer at this point is still in free-fall, even the choice of name - Lucifer - suggests that he is part way between the pure archangel of God's court and the devil, the epitome of evil.

    Other names also carry similar references. Aside from the main character, the film's leading humans are an elderly couple called Lupita and Emanuel. "Lupita" invites some kind of comparison with the visiting "angel". Emanuel of course means "God with us". Equally prominent is their grand-daughter, Maria, whose name is similarly rich in biblical references.

    All this is significant because this idea of Lucifer's morality changing, both with (and perhaps even because of) his interactions with humans is fairly central.Indeed the film is at pains to show Lucifer doing what would ordinarily be considered good acts, even retreading some of Jesus' footsteps. Shortly after his arrival on earth he asks for water from a woman at a well. He rescues a sheep and is shown cradling it in his arms. In one pivotal scene Lucifer takes the feet of the lame Emanuel and begins to wash them.

    Not only is this reminiscent of Jesus actions at the Last Supper, but when Lucifer returns to massage the man's feet it soon becomes clear that the man has been healed. But is this about good for goodness's sake, or about the power of the miracle which continues to hold sway in various religious circles? Or is it simply that after centuries of serving God these things come naturally even to the very one who has sworn him as an enemy? I'm reminded of 2 Cor. 11:14 "for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light".

    The miracle of course brings the crowds but their initial adoration turns to dissatisfaction when no further miracles are forthcoming. When Lupita and Emanuel throw their celestial guest a party one villager rebukes him. "If you knew what pain meant you would be more merciful". Yet despite some of the villagers' misgivings may be, they're not enough to dissuade one church leader from building a babel-esque tower to reach to heaven to enable "the stranger" to visit more often".

    Whether it's because Lucifer is disappointed by the attitudes of the villagers, or because he is unable to resist the temptations such a social event offers him, the party marks the last time we, and the villagers, see this mysterious stranger. The scene culminates in Lucifer plying Maria with an unusual combination of alcohol and heavenly visions, in order to seduce her. As the next day breaks, a clever shot in Tondoscope shows Lucifer sneaking past the still sleeping Maria, creeping out of the door and apparently never to return. He has used his powers for his own selfish and sexual gain and the villagers never see him again. As the film moves into Part II (titled "Sin") Maria's voice cries out desperately over the tannoy "The angel that came has left...Where did you go? Yesterday you were so kind to me...We are waiting for you."

    Several of the film's later scenes also picking up this theme of contrasting the supposed purity of the religious impulse with a more realistic view of mis-functioning humanity. Another memorable scene sees a woman on her knees shuffling towards an altar. But rather than this being portrayed as a holy and emotional moment it is rooted in the profane. The shrine the woman edges towards is being vacuumed by a cleaner. As she homes in on the altar she cuts herself by accidentally breaking her bottle of milk which runs over the and and is led away.

    Three of Van den Bergh's other images are particularly striking. The first occurs fairly early on in the film. It's night and as Lucifer moves around he walks in front of a fire (see above). For a moment the fire seems almost to stick to him and be following him around, a subtle nod to all those hellfire and damnation tales of Lucifer's ultimate destination. The second shows a tree standing starkly by the side of the lake, evoking the tree of life and/or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the best of the lot focuses on Maria, shortly after her night with Lucifer and right at the film's mid-point. It begins on a close up of the back of her head only for the camera to gently rotate/twist through 180 degrees. At the same time as camera turns Maria slowly leans back until ultimately she is left as if floating at the top of the screen. It's a transcendent shot, made all the more graceful and moving because of the perfectly proportioned circular frame.

    [Spoilers]It's at this point that it also starts to become apparent that the use of the name Maria carries greater weight than it first appeared. This Maria is also the human chosen to bear the son of a celestial being. Whilst Emanuel's healing eases the family's suffering in one important sense, Maria's pregnancy places them under further strain ultimately leading to the baliffs turning up to destroy their home at the very moment Maria goes into labour. The first film in Van den Bergh's loose-ish trilogy, 2010's Little Baby Jesus of Flandr, was about three socially outcast Magi encountering the infant Christ. In a sense, then, the trilogy has rather come (if you will pardon the pun) full circle. [End of spoilers].

    It's hard to really know what to make of all this, a mixture of the spiritual with the profane. A story about a gullible humanity and a humanised devil. A picture of a spartan way of light that is desperate to connect with the divine and a film that is brave enough to throw all the traditional images up in the air in order to explore their meaning.

    Readers might also enjoy Jay Weissberg's insightful review for Variety, which helped me develop my own thoughts about this film.

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    Saturday, November 07, 2015

    The Red Tent (2014)

    "My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust... I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother."

    So Dinah (The White Queen's Rebecca Ferguson) introduces herself at the start of both Anita Diamant's novel and this mini-series adaptation directed by Roger Young. The Jacob and Joseph referred to are those we meet in the latter chapters of Genesis - the founding father of Israel and his most beloved son. But this is not really their story; neither is it a conventional retelling of Dinah's own story. This is a fanciful exploration of the women of Jacob's clan on whom rests so much, yet receive so little credit. It's not just a film about Dinah; it's also about Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, Rebecca, Tamar and the wife of Laban. It's an attempt to get behind the female names that tend to get skipped over, or only valued for their motherhood, and to look at the events of Genesis from their perspective and provide insights from their point of view.

    So this isn't a film for those who might like to term themselves as biblical purists. For one thing the "rape" of Dinah portrayed in the film is nothing of the sort, at least by modern standards. Dinah is presented as a self-determining woman who falls in love with a tribal prince and makes her own decision to sleep with him. But of course in biblical times women were viewed as property of their husbands/fathers. It's at least possible that the prevailing view was that consent to sexual acts on their bodies were not theirs to give but that of their fathers. By this world-view it would be impossible for Dinah to give her consent - it was not seen as hers to give., it was Jacob's. The shocking possibility of that shows us what a radically different world we live in today, but in highlighting the difference the film perhaps strays too far into anachronism. If women really were as oppressed as this - denied consent even over their own bodies - then how likely it is that they would dare to defy this social consensus?

    None of this is to suggest that Jacob (Iain Glen) is portrayed as that sort of patriarchal leader. Indeed he too is portrayed at taking a more progressive view of women's rights than the presumed cultural norm. In an early conversation in the titular red tent - the private space of the tribe's leading women - we're told that Jacob treats his concubines (themselves the daughters of Laban's concubines) as proper wives. Not dissimilarly Jacob is "in" on the switch that happens on the day of his first wedding. When Rachel gets cold feet, her similarly smitten sister Leah (Minnie Driver) offers to step in to prevent her embarrassment. Jacob discovers the switch before consummation, but he's happy to go along with the ruse and blame Laban in the morning. This the audience accepts because, really, Laban is the piece's only villain. He is later shown to beat his wife - behaviour that makes Jacob's, at times, rather suspect behaviour seem more acceptable.

    Part of the interest of the camp's red tent is it gets to the heart of the question that intrigues so many about polygamous societies: how did the opposing wives get on? The obvious expectation is that there would be all manner of arguments, jealousy and disagreements, though some (mostly male) commentators have sought to suggest that the women would recognise that the system was the best for all and just get on with it as best they could. The film's take is a slightly different one - Jacob's wives are already sisters and the (initial) shared marriage is their idea rather than his (at least initially), furthermore Bilhah and Zilpah are shown as empowered and equal members of the family. I'm not sure it will satisfy feminists any more than it will biblical traditionalists, but it's intriguing to watch such a perspective played out.

    The casting here is rather interesting, not least in this respect. Ferguson was excellent as Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen - one of my favourite historical TV series of recent times. There's much common ground here as well. Both stories take traditional patriarchal stories and tell them from a female point of view - suggesting their leads wielded more power than they are traditionally ascribed. And then there is the similarity in the two character's social standing. Both start off as relatively well off women who fall in love with a man on his way to becoming king. Their marriage for love flies in the face of the conventional marriage-for-strategic-advantage that was expected of them and ends up causing a vast number of deaths. Furthermore, both Dinah and Queen Elizabeth rely heavily on the traditional female wisdom of their mothers, using curses and potions alongside a shared understanding of mid-wifery. It places them at odds with the patriarchal order, gains her not unfounded accusations of witch-craft yet proves to have access to a deeper understanding of the world that the dismissive men could ever appreciate. In fairness this it's not totally inconsistent with many of the beliefs of the time, even if the new-age spin on it is, at times, a bit over the top. The other casting is mixed. It's not hard to accept that Jacob, who the Bible seems to suggest was a fairly shallow man, might be so totally smitten for Morena Baccarin, but casting Minnie Driver as the "plain" one is a stretch too far. If the Leah had really looked like (film star) Minnie Driver, Jacob might never have felt the need to work for that second seven years.

    Yet for all the female empowerment it's the actions of Jacob that drive the plot on into the second and third 'acts'. Dinah and the other women voice their displeasure at Laban's treatment of his wife; but it is Jacob who decides to return to the land of his father. Dinah's romantic involvement may be the spark that propels the violence between Israel and the inhabitants of Shechem; but it was Jacob's decision to move to the area and develop closer ties with Hamor that set the wheels in motion.

    When the massacre of the Shechemites does comes it's vicious and very bloody. Up to this point everything about the production is typical of Young's work on The Bible Collection. It's filmed in Morocco and the skies, sets, costumes, indeed everything about the look and feel of the film - even the slightly uneven mix of lesser Hollywood stars with local extras - feels like the earlier series. But the massacre is jarringly out of sync with anything from that earlier work. Indeed it feels far more of a piece with the History Channel's recent series The Bible (2013), where the violence was very much ramped up. When I started writing this review I thought that discrepancy very much a weakness, but now writing these words it feels like it might actually be one of the film's hidden strengths. After all here, at least, it can be argued that Levi and Simon/Simeon's violence should shock us. It's an unprecedented tear in the social formalities of the day. Reparation had been made, or, at least, so it was thought. A treaty had been made. Simeon and Levi's act leaves Jacob reeling in disbelief and fear for his tribe's future. It's not insignificant that when this horrific event was written down centuries later, it's still Simeon and Levi who are still specifically remembered as being responsible. In many places Jacob's sons, and their tribes act as one, but not with this. Young's jarring change of gears jolts the viewer out of a relatively homely narrative of mutual sisterhood into the horrors of violent and dominant patriarchy when it operates without restraint.

    Despite his horror at the events Jacob still struggles to appreciate the weaknesses inherent in the whole woman-as-property system. Jacob tries to put some of the blame for his son's actions on what he calls Shechem and Dinah's "sin". "There was no sin" Dinah fires back, "we were married...Your sons have slaughtered righteous men". The rift between father and daughter is so great that Dinah flees into the arms of her mother-in-law and the two move to Egypt, allowing the film to continue to interweave it's fictional exploration with the more established story of Joseph in Egypt. That said though, the film starts to become a little contrived in the second half and the points of interest, for Bible film fans at least, start to wane. That said Dinah's eventual reunion with Joseph is touchingly done.

    Not infrequently I end reviews by describing them as "an interesting addition to the canon", but in some senses this doesn't quite seem apt given the projects aim to create an alternative story within and around the text of Genesis. Certainly that makes this an interesting experiment which, in turn, throws fresh light on one of the more overlooked parts of the Bible and offers a good deal of food for thought. It isn't for everyone, but, given that the original story is hardly beloved amongst the faithful, criticisms on its original release were rather half-hearted. It's appropriate I feel that The Red Tent is a film which nurtures thoughtful discussion rather than creating unnecessary conflict.


    Incidentally, you might like to read the less appreciative, but more humourous and thorough discussion of the film called "159 Thoughts We Had While Watching The Red Tent"

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