• 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, January 25, 2016

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)

    It's fair to say that when DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg began dreaming up his new studio with his partners David Geffen and Steven Spielberg he would probably have been shocked to know his studio would soon become a byword for popular but unremarkable kids' films. Katzenberg already had a prominent role at Disney doing just that, but a combination of internal politics, his frustration at getting overlooked for promotion and his desire to see animation reach greater heights lead him to launch first the DreamWorks studio with Geffen and Spielberg and then to head up its animation wing.

    "I didn't want us to tell fairy tales" Katzenberg explained at the time, "I wanted us to pick an interesting, dramatic, epic...embracing all the techniques of animation"1 It was an artistic vision that Katzenberg's team on The Prince of Egypt really bought into. As Nicola LaPorte wrote in her book charting the birth of DreamWorks "for visual inspiration, the artists had studied the painterly visuals of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, nineteenth-century illustrator Gustave Dor&eacute's Bible woodcuts and Monet".

    As if to underline the point Thomasine Lewis was commissioned to produce a "Movie Scrapbook" for the film which devoted a two page spread just to explain the film's emotional beat board and explaining how the "selection of colours for each scene was influenced by the emotional tone of that scene". "At the movie's darkest point, when Ramsees' son is killed, the film became monochromatic".3 I wouldn't claim to be an expert in the field of 'books written to tie-in to animated movies', but I can't think of many that would even think of going behind the scenes, let alone go into them in such detail.

    The result of all this thought, care, love, referencing and attention to detail is a stunning visual experience. Created at a time when traditional, hand-drawn, animation was still strong, but CGI was finally getting to the stage where it could have an impact, the film blends the two techniques to great effect. It's as if hand-drawn knew it no longer quite had the dominance of its past and CGI had not yet got too big for its boots and so was still eager to serve.

    Indeed despite voices being provided by household names such as Val Kilmer (Moses), Ralph Fiennes (Ramsees) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), the real stars are the incredible backdrops. Richie Chavez's sweeping deserts and Darek Gogol's towering architecture make Prince of Egypt seem bigger and more splendid even than films such as DeMille's Ten Commandments, Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Wyler's Ben Hur; all of which are given notable tributes as the film progresses. As the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt 75 minutes in, the film's catchiest song - "There Will be Miracles" - strikes up a reprise. The accompanying images, revealing the extent of destruction wrought on this once great kingdom, flick by. Each "scene" lasts only a few seconds but many are so immense in scope that no live action filmmaker would dare to attempt them. In one sixty second section alone there are thirteen shots, many of previously magnificent structures now brought low. The cost of producing the sets for just one of these shots with live action - let alone all of them - would be impossible to justify for the brief few seconds for which they flicker across the screen.

    Gogol's work is particularly notable for the way his dominating architecture is so interconnected with the Egyptian psyche. The Egyptian's all encompassing self-belief reflected in stone and marble, physically towering over the slaves building it, as if as an expression of their masters' systematic dominance. At times both Ramsees and his father Seti unknowingly match the shapes and poses of the art that both surrounds and honours them (see above). All of which forms a startlingly contrast with Chavez's more expressionistic mountains and deserts.

    Yet the most celebrated sequence in the film takes place inside, as Moses' world begins to unravel with the sudden revelation that he is a Hebrew saved from the very man he had come to call father. The moving hieroglyphics scene is repeated in Prince of Egypt's prequel Joseph King of Dreams but it is not a patch on the original. Here, there's a combination of drama, inventiveness and technical mastery as the story hurries from one surface to another, simultaneously providing an objective account of the events that happened in the past alongside a subjective account of what Moses is feeling at that very moment. And then the the two threads merge as Seti coincidentally appears at Moses' side to offer an unconvincing justification which morphs into Hitchcockian strings and the camera fading to black.

    What is also impressive is the way the "camera" thinks like a real camera, occasionally leaving part of the shot out of focus, or placing certain objects or characters on the edge of the frame. There are zooms and shifts in the depth of focus all of which make the images feel like they are more real than they actually are. The burning bush is first observed by the shadows and flickers it casts upon the cave wall and only then do we get the slow pan right to reveal the thing itself.

    Indeed what's strange is that the weakest part of the visuals is the part that the team seemed most excited about at the time - the special effects. The burning bush, for example, becomes less interesting once it is actually appear in shot. The attempt to make the parting of the Red Sea extra dramatic results in it being over-the-top, a little too showy; likewise the pillar of fire. The plagues are a bit of a mix also. Generally they are carried out effectively - the use of fast cuts and short shots adds to the impression of terror - and generally the Angel of Death scene is eerily unnerving, but not dissimilarly the odd moment feels over fussy.

    But that's a minor criticism, even less so when you consider how badly much CGI from the era has aged. Which is just as well as The Prince of Egypt does rely on its visuals to carry a lot of the plot and themes, from the way the camera moves through the mists upto the giant carved face of Pharaoh at the start, through to the various montages that accompany the musical numbers. Indeed, due to the film's relatively short running time (88 minutes, compared to 150 minutes for Exodus: Gods and Kings and 220 minutes for The Ten Commandments) these montages carry considerable weight, making the film feel like less of a musical than most of Disney's output (though more, obviously, than the majority of Moses films).

    The film breaks with The Ten Commandments in other significant ways too, particularly in its portrayal of the two princes. Whilst both films contrast Moses with his 'brother' Ramsees, their characters are very different. In DeMille's film, even as an Egyptian, Moses is upright and honourable, whereas his brother is proud, arrogant and scheming. Here however, whilst both brothers are prone to bouts of teenage irresponsibility, Ramsees' problem is his worry and self doubt. As heir to the throne, his father repeatedly reminds him that he is a link in a chain going back centuries. Ramsees is weighed down by his fear of being the Pharaoh who lets his ancestors down and sees Egypt slide into ruin. It's a bitter irony that it's this fear of failure that leads him down the very path he is so desperate to avoid.

    In contrast, Moses is the carefree playboy, getting his brother into trouble. When he tells Ramsees that is problem is that he "care(s) too much" his brother counters "your problem is that you don't care at all". It's not that Moses is callous - life simply hasn't exposed him to suffering. However things change for him when, in his desire to be the centre of attention, he humiliates the women who will eventually become his future wife. He laughs uproariously, but then he notices the effect his loutish behaviour has had on his victim and he's struck by a sudden pang of guilt. Moses is a hedonistic playboy with a heart. His killing of the Egyptian (above) is an accident - again the result of him witnessing a kind of suffering with which he is totally unfamiliar.5 As he later reflects "I did not see because I did not wish to see".

    Given the degree of personal transformation Moses undergoes after his encounters with Tzipporah and Miriam, it's perhaps no wonder that the Bible's own moment of Moses' conversion is rather truncated. God commissions him and then gets angry with him for failing to grasp the point is what ends up being a few seconds. Pretty quickly, then, Moses is back in Egypt warning his much-missed brother, outsmarting lightly-entertaining priests, dispatching plagues and leading his people to freedom. The sea parts and the people go through, taking a smattering of Egyptians with them, and the film ends with Moses standing above a huge crowd nursing a couple of stone tablets. It perhaps feels a little rushed, yet, like so many of the shots that have preceded it, it is nonetheless an indelibly majestic image.

    1 - Katzenberg from Making of documentary on DVD.
    2 - "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.", Nicole LaPorte p.116
    3 - Thomasine Lewis, "The Prince of Egypt: The Movie Scrapbook - An in-depth look behind the scenes" pgs 32-33
    4 - As my 7 year old son put it "you don't have to get so angry".
    5 - Perhaps it's just the way my DVD player works but it you watch this in slow motion the falling Egyptian goes up instead of down, allowing the "fall" to take longer. Again the contrast of the shots from below and the overhead shot from above is particularly effective.

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    Monday, January 18, 2016

    The Wolf of Wall Street vs Last Temptation of Christ

    I finally managed to catch up with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street last night and as I'm also preparing a talk on his Last Temptation of Christ I was looking out for similarities between Wolf and Scorsese's other work, particularly his Jesus biopic.

    As you might expect, whilst the lead characters fall on different sides of the goodie/baddie threshold, one of the key areas of similarity is the plot. So both films are essentially buddy movies featuring a character from an ordinary background who early on teams up with a partner who will hold significant say in their vocation. The partner provides the rational scheming as a foil to the lead's natural charisma and sense of, for want of a better word, showmanship. The pair quickly gather a overly dedicated bunch of disciples - men who are prepared a high price to be followers of the lead - and their vocation develops rapidly, as they defy the status quo to provide a new way of doing things. Both stories are told very much from within the bubble of these communities. In neither case do we see behind the scenes of those establishments which have traditionally been seen as the trusted experts within Judaism/Wall Street. Their success is so great that both groups rapidly end up in over their heads, struggling to cope and drawing the attention of the authorities. The authorities deal with them swiftly, dispassionately but without really breaking stride. Kyle Chandler's FBI agent is no more bothered or threatened by bringing down The Wolf than he would be if he had all of David Bowie's Roman legions at his disposal.

    There are other similarities as well. As with many Jesus films Last Temptation features a meeting with John the Baptists. Here it's a single conversation where the Baptists passes on all his wisdom. Here we have the Matthew McConaughey figure who functions in a similar fashion. In the aftermath of both encounters the Jesus/Wolf figure finds himself in a wilderness of sorts having to start from scratch.

    Of course any director of note will also use the other tools at his disposal to reinforce his themes. The most obvious of which here is the Wolf's habit of adopting a cruciform pose, most memorably as he enters his office with a broad smile on his face and his arms spread almost as wide. Then there's the way that Scorsese uses nudity as a shortcut for decadence. And that both films rely on a voice-over from their protagonist. Indeed there are also moments when the audio stops being the "realistic" sound we would normally expect, or the soundtrack and becomes either silent or only some of the sounds that would be expected from the scenario - a more expressionistic audio channel if you will.

    Scorsese's work also repeats certain visual ideas in many of his films. He's particular keen on freeze frames, and slow motion shots, both of which make appearances here although are used more sparingly in Last Temptation. But we do get the kind of accelerated swooping zooms in which accompanies Jesus' first voice-over.

    I suspect the internet will full of other such similarities but these will do for now.

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    Saturday, January 02, 2016

    La Genèse (1999)

    One of the things that is most powerful about studying the Bible on film is the way it forces you to look at the biblical texts through another's eyes. It enables us to see our blind spots and to catch things we might otherwise we may have missed. It can be argued, of course, that the benefits of this are only limited with Hollywood films - after all they are a product of broadly the same cultural understanding that he vast majority of us in the English speaking west all share.

    Clearly, then, Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s La Genèse (1999) bristles with fresh opportunity. Far from being the product of a group of wealthy middle class westerners, it tells the story of Isaac’s family from an African perspective, specifically that of the Bambara speaking people of Mali, who number only few million people. Whilst it's important to stress that this too is a different culture from pre-historic Canaan, it understands the nomadic tribal context in which these stories are set, far better than any number of Hollywood films. It provides a fascinating series of insights, bringing the tribal context to the fore and exploring the stories with an authenticity that is largely absent in other portrayals.

    It's temptingly easy to dismiss some of the ways this adaptation deviates from how we perceive the text - it deviates from the biblical order of the various stories for one thing - but of course that is exactly the kind of thing to which we should be paying most attention. Even after two decades of non-linear story telling through films like Pulp Fiction and Memento people in our culture tend to assume that a series of narratives strung together in a certain order, occurred in that order. But of course that is an assumption, which may or not be valid and the fact that it is not necessarily valid in another, not dissimilar, culture should make us think about its validity.

    Given how achronologically we tend to read scripture anyway (for example reading a bit from Mark, then a bit from Jeremiah, then a bit from Genesis and then a verse from Paul etc.) there's much merit in this approach. The convoluted plot line, with flashbacks and stories within stories actually makes the narrative flow much better than The Bible Collection's two films Joseph and Jacob which takes a more straightforward approach. As a filmic device it gives a broad sweep of how unreliable Jacob's clan was in a single snapshot - undermining the Sunday school image of the patriarchs as noble and grandfatherly. Somehow presenting them altogether highlights the instability there.

    By refusing to lionise its protagonists it emphasises just how dysfunctional this family was at times. Too often these characters have been stripped of their humanity, and shown simply as one dimensional heroes. La Genèse gives a more realistic picture which testifies to a God who uses such ordinary, broken unreliable people further his will, and offers us hope that he can use us as well.

    Sissoko's newly arranged narrative starts with a brief shot of Esau and his servants. Esau pops up regularly throughout the film in similarly brief fashion; as an almost incidental figure around the margins of the story, yet the potential conflict which Esau seeks looms large, casting its shadow across all the other events that are unfolding.

    However the incident that drives the plot is Dinah's rape by Shechem and the resulting revenge her brothers wreak on the Shechemites. Perhaps rather troublingly it appears to hold Dinah partially responsible, depicting her as a precocious flirt who, along with a couple of young boys, teases Shechem a little too far.

    This attitude is reflected by the Shechemites themselves, who hang around whilst Dinah is being raped and criticise her people for being rootless and without culture. A bloodied sheet is even held aloft for the waiting crowd's approval. The film thus portrays this as a political act as much as a sexual one. Initially Hamor, also, blames Dinah for what has occurred, but then the film becomes the first to give Dinah a voice. She speaks back and rebukes Hamor and he seems to respond to her chastisement and decide to speak to Jacob.

    When Hamor seeks out Jacob finds him confined to his tent mourning the death of Joseph. Indeed, Jacob is confined to his tent for much of the film and his inability to lead his people at the time seems to be held responsible for many of the problems that afflict his family. So it is left to Leah to express the family's anger over Dinah's rape and the idea of getting Hamor's people to get circumcised arises from a discussion Jacob has with his sons.

    Whilst the film doesn't really make it clear how closely Jacob and Hamor are, it emphasises their connectedness, the "brotherly" nature of their relationship, rather than portraying them as entirely independent of each other. It comes to the fore in particular once Hamor's son Shechem marries Jacob's daughter Dinah as the two men become related, not only through marriage, but also because Hamor and his people partake in the Hebrew ritual of circumcision.

    The sequence is easily the most memorable one in the entire film, at least for male viewers, portraying the Shechemites' mass circumcising in wince inducing fashion. Firstly there is the queue of men waiting ominously for their appointment with a man wielding a large, but crude looking, knife and then there are the post-operation scenes of the various men hobbling around trying to minimise the pain. This highlights the link between the crowd complicity in Dinah's rape and their communal punishment. Nevertheless, the women, who also witnessed Dinah's humiliation, not only avoid this "punishment" but make things worse standing by and mock the men. Jacob's sons also mock Shechem: "His crown has fallen and he can't bend to pick it up".

    Judah and Simeon take this as their cue to wreak their vengeance and the slaughter is disturbingly thorough. One of the Hebrew attacker pauses when faced with a baby boy, but a fellow countryman insists that even this boy should be killed. The only survivor is Hamor himself (in contrast to the text where he also is killed by Simeon and Levi), who is left to face the cruel implications of his fate: not only has he lost his son and his friends but his tribe will die out with him.

    Hamor returns to speak to Jacob who is horrified by his sons' actions, but Hamor takes the incident to the council of nations and the film is there for the majority of its remaining run time. As well as deciding what to do about Jacob's tribe, they also hear the case brought against Judah specifically by his daughter-in-law Tamar.

    Tamar's story is another which is covered very sparsely in film. Like the story of Dinah, it casts the man who gave his name to the Jews in a terrible light. Not only is he a co-conspirator regarding the slaughter of the Shechemites, but also a hypocritical user of prostitutes and a man who would deny his daughter-in-law her rights as a widow. Judah is portrayed as vain and foolish in contrast to Tamar who takes things into her own hands. It's no surprise, then, to find Dinah involved in presenting the case to the council of nations. Throughout the film Dinah is portrayed as a strong woman, unwilling to submit to what the various men and what the patriarchal culture expects of her and she is ultimately vindicated in the final scenes when she appears as a witness before God..

    It is this sequence that feels most embedded in Malian culture. Tamar's case is serious, yet its telling is accompanied by bursts of rhythmical music and dance and much mocking of Judah. This feels alien to us - as do the images presented as a flashback that accompany it - but again this serves to emphasise the gulf between the original story's culture and our own.

    With the assembled group having ruled on these cases Jacob emerges having left his tent and tells the story of how his mother and father met. This, also, is shown with a flashback to accompany Jacob's narration. Jacob intends to use the story to contrast how things have changed between his parents' betrothal and the time in which he now lives - "before the world was torn asunder", but his interpretation is challenged by one who has appeared in the darkness outside the tent: Esau.

    Esau challenges Jacob's nostalgic claims that there was a time before "the rift between father and son...between God and man." He reminds Jacob that their father turned his back on Esau and his mother cutting him off and argues that "Since the dawn of time, children have been into rift and discord". At his command Esau's men attack and burn the tent where the council of nations had been meeting and kill their animals. Esau has dreamt that God will bring him justice in the morning and leaves Jacob to tell Benjamin how the two brothers became estranged (accompanied again by a depiction of the events in the story). Jacob repeats his lament - "God no longer hears men".

    But no sooner are the words out of his mouth than an angel, in the form of a boy, summons him to an encounter with God. Jacob pleads at length* with God for Esau's forgiveness so that his family will not be destroyed. Interestingly God is portrayed as many voices as a crowd of children in white in the film's most visually creative moment.

    However Esau too meets the angel and is told "Put down your knife. Justice is for God alone to will". Furthermore he witnesses his brothers ordeal such that his heart towards him is changed. In the morning it is Esay who turns peacemaker, reconciling with Jacob but also seemingly knowing the truth about what happened to Joseph. And it is he rather than his brother that sends Jacob's sons to Egypt, tantalisingly setting up the story of Joseph as the next chapter in their family's story.

    Visually, La genèse is beautifully filmed making the most of the wonderful Malese landscapes, and capturing something of the empty space that typified the world several thousand years ago. Sissoko also uses colour to great effect contrasting the bright blue of Jacob and his family with the orange of Hamor's people, the use of two complementary colours highlighting the gulf that exists between the two peoples. It's notable also that when God arrives it is in a dazzling display of white. Yet nevertheless the film is, at times, very stark and brutal in what it captures – starring unflinchingly at some of the more earthy elements of the story.

    Yet for all its grounded-ness in an African tribal culture, the real power of La genèse is the way it testifies to universal human values. Fear, love, hate, revenge, the desire for justice, all of these are present in all human societies from the most primitive early tribes to the supposedly advanced western economies of today. One of the reasons that the stories of Jacob and Esau still have such power today is the way they give voice to those emotions. And La genèse is one of the best Bible films not because of some novelty value, but because it is able to take the latent emotions in the story and give them extra depth and verve, bringing them closer to home even for those of us who reside far away from Jacob and his tribe and kinsmen.

    *The discussion is complex and lengthy and would bear a lengthier examination than time permits here.

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