• 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, March 28, 2016

    In the Footsteps of Judas

    Following on from the success of 2012's documentary In the Footsteps of St Paul and last year's In the Footsteps of St. Peter (2015) the BBC's main Easter offering this year was In the Footsteps of Judas. This time however, the programme was fronted by Rev. Kate Bottley rather than actor David Suchet who starred in the previous entries in the series.

    The change of personnel, if nothing else, is quite significant. Suchet will always be best remembered for playing Agatha Christie's Poirot and his approach to the previous two documentaries carry with them the cerebral, thoughtful air of a literary detective on a case. Bottley is best known as the vicar from Channel 4's Gogglebox which, for those who don't know, is a reality show where we at home are invited to watch others in their homes watching the same telly we've been watching the previous week. It sounds dreadful, but it's actually rather entertaining and has proved very popular and Bottley will have challenged many of the "more tea vicar?" stereotypes that still persist.

    It was only a matter of time, then, before Bottley was given the chance to try and breathe fresh life into a BBC religious documentary which, if left to their own devices, do tend to drift towards being overly remote and unengaging (even if some of us kind of like them that way). So it was no surprise to see Revd. Kate's face popping up in the Easter schedules offering a fresh look at Judas.

    Looking back through my archives I was surprised to see that there hasn't really been a TV documentary of Judas - at least not in the UK in the ten years I have been running this blog, and (from memory) in the ten or so years before that. It sounds like the kind of subject Robert Beckford would have explored back in the noughties, but the best we got was a segment in Beckford's 2008's Secrets of the 12 Disciples and even then it gave a wide berth to the "Gospel of Judas" (which got it's own National Geographic Documentary back in 2006 which Mark Goodacre reviewed here).

    In this film, the "Gospel of Judas" is given fairly short shrift and even then it's primarily a way of introducing one of the five main theories around Judas' betrayal of Jesus. According to the featured consultants, (who for the programme as a whole were Peter Stanford, Prof. Helen Bond, Revd Canon Dr Anthony Cane, Dr. Simon Gathercole, Dr. Janet Robson and Prof. Joan Taylor) the "Gospel of Judas" claims Judas was Jesus' best and most trusted friend and his 'betrayal' was actually part of Jesus' plan. There are flirtations with the thorny issue of Judas being forever berated for a role he had to play in order for God's plans to work, but they hardly go the full Lee and Herring, rather more a kind of uncomfortable "anyway...moving on...".

    Each of the five theories are presented in turn in the middle section of the documentary as a way of countering the suggestion that Judas was merely a thief who betrayed Jesus out of greed (It's pointed out that 30 pieces of silver might only have been a months wages so such a horrific betrayal would be unlikely). The other theories put forward are that Judas might have been part of the Sicarii, who ultimately rejected Jesus for being too sympathetic to Rome; that he may have hailed from a village called Scaria somewhere in the south (and so may always been an outsider amongst these other northerners); or that Judas was trying to force Jesus into the action he thought needed to be taken.

    The fifth theory here is more around what Judas' role was rather than his motivation. Having visited the Garden of Gethsemane, Bottley then visits a cave called Gethsemani and it's suggested that perhaps Judas wasn't there to identify his now famous master, but more to take the soldiers to this secret location. Of these five theories this last is the only one I hadn't come across before and whilst it wasn't argued particularly compellingly (very much the style of this, and indeed the majority of BBC docs) it was an interesting theory and I'd have liked to hear more. But it makes the middle section fairly fast flowing, even if a little choppy, This strikes a contrast with the first part of the programme which was mainly to establish Judas' importance and his traditional role for those less familiar with the story. It's loaded of Lady Gaga and Bottley stressing her desire for a more redemptive and sympathetic look at Judas.

    However, it's the final section that seemed to be causing the most interest on Twitter and contained the part that I found most thought provoking. One of the theories that is put forward in this final section is that Judas became the Church's "poster boy" for avarice just as capitalism was taking root. As capitalism began to become the churches number one enemy so the man who changed to the side of this growing threat had to be put beyond the possibility of mercy and redemption as a way of discouraging others from making similar compromises.

    The film essentially switches between four types of material - Rev. Kate talking to camera; experts giving their words of wisdom in the classic "talking heads" style; location shooting, often with Bottley visiting places from her own parish to key sites in Jerusalem; and dramatised footage of actors playing the roles of Judas (Hicham Bahloul), Jesus (Mohamed Quatib) and the other key players - and it's here that they come together to greatest effect as Rev Kate, full of empathy, asks the camera:
    Who found him? Who came across this young man? Who cut him down from the tree? Who took his body away? Who buried him? Who mourned him?
    It's not a question that is often asked and instantly I started thinking about the general absence of answers to these questions in the dramatised films about Jesus. Theories as to why Jesus betrayed his master go back to the silent era and most of those discussed here have been raised in one Jesus film or another. But these questions - what happened to Judas after his death, essentially - never seemed to be asked, let alone answered. Another interesting contrast with the majority of Jesus films that Judas is notably better looking than Jesus, which surely enables the audience to feel far greater sympathy with him than the man he betrayed.

    So instead of ending by looking at sympathetic movie portrayal of Judas, the programme turns instead to a piece of art engraved on glass. Bottley heads to St. Nicholas and St. Magnus church in Dorset to view a piece by Laurence Whistler. The depiction of Judas - more details here - has him turning towards the light in his final seconds of death, whilst the silver coins fall into the ground, unexpectedly producing flowers where they land.

    All of this suggests the possibility of redemption for him at the last minute, a change of heart after his irreversible act of suicide. And as an image it nicely summarises the documentary as a whole - a compassion for all people, that dares to hope that even those as desperate or far away as Judas, might be drawn to the light. A God of a love so powerful that not even Judas could be beyond the possibility of his redemption.


    In the Footsteps of Judas was produced and directed by Sian Salt and is available for those inside the UK on iPlayer.

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    Saturday, March 19, 2016

    Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary-1985)

    Jean Luc Godard had been established as one of the masters of cinema for over thirty years by the time he wrote, directed and produced his fascinating exploration into the nature of the incarnation in 1985. Godard began as a writer for "Cahiers du Cinema" in the early 50s before graduating to making his own films from 1955 and becoming the most recognisable name amongst the directors of the French New Wave.

    If, by the time the eighties came around, his output had begun to wane and lose a little of his early vitality, there was no shortage exploring ideas; It's no coincidence that his adaption of a key story from the Bible was followed by his re-working of King Lear (1987) and notable too is the film's repeated use of the historic-sounding intertitle "At that time" (Godard's interplay between the written text of intertitles and visual image is one of the most striking features of his body of work).

    In essence the idea is a simple one - telling the story of Mary the Mother of Jesus as if it were to happen today - but hanging on that premise is the exploration of a number of themes including Marie's obsession with her changing body, her struggle to persuade Joseph of the baby's divine origin, her continued virginity, the contrast between the profane and the divine, the idea of a godly figure born into such a lowly background and Marie's struggle to come to terms with her new, and constantly evolving, roles. Many of Godard's films give an importance to, and occasionally verging on the deification of, his female leads. Indeed as David Thomson puts it "It was the discovery that he loved [actress Anna] Karina more in moving images than in life that may have broken their marriage".1 Hardly surprising, then, that eventually he would turn his attention to the mother of God.

    As those familiar with Godard's work might expect there's no shortage of cinematic concepts and contrivances. Those familiar with Il vangelo secondo Matteo by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who collaborated with Godard on 1962's RoGoPaG with Godard, will recognise that Godard uses the same part of Bach's St Matthew's Passion as his Italian counterpart. Godard also plays around with the continuity of his editing, focussing for long stretches on single scenes, or even shots before jumping ahead several days, months or even years. And then there's his characteristic humour for example towards the end of the film Marie's child, who has now grown to the age of young school child, asks a new-found friend his name and then proceeds to change it to Peter.

    From a visual point of view the film is shot in the 1.37:1 that he favoured at the time. Godard uses this more equally-proportioned canvas to focus attention on an array of circular objects, most notably the full moon and the seemingly enlarged sun of numerous shots; the basketballs that Marie and her team-mates use to play; as well as a glowing spherical light shade, which sticks out from the edge of one shot like a huge white pregnant tummy, dominating the screen. Reflections of the sun's light are everywhere from the opening shot of sunlight skipping across ripples of the water's surface, to eighteen shots of the moon, "a Marian symbol of virginity and femininity".2

    Not dissimilarly there is a lot of talk about "holes" and it's notable that the film ends on an extreme close up of Marie's lips; freshly glossed and open in a circle as if signifying that now Jesus reached a certain age she is finally sexually available. Indeed just a scene or two earlier had been Jesus telling his mother he is going to do his "father's work" and we don't see him again.

    But the film's most central visual theme is the body of Marie herself as the camera focuses on her naked body in scene after scene. The intention of this seems to be to focus on the idea of Mary's own confusion and conflicting emotions about her body being taken over by this patriarchal God. As Godard later explained "I was trying to make the audience see not a naked woman, but flesh, if that's at all possible"3. However despite his claim that his "purpose was to try and shoot a woman naked and not make it aggressive, not in an X-rated picture way...more the purpose of an anatomical drawing."4, the film quickly becomes uncomfortably voyeuristic. Given that the subject of this voyeurism is a teenage schoolgirl, these shots, in light of present day attitudes, make these scenes all the more problematic.

    The degree of nudity in the film may well be why it received such heated criticism from many quarters. Pope John Paul II allegedly claimed it "deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers" - although I can find no original source for this quotation even if it did cheekily appear on the cover of one of the film's DVD releases - and it was banned in Brazil and Argentina. Indeed Godard himself tried to withdraw the film from distribution in Italy and was personally attacked (albeit with a shaving-foam pie in the face) when the film screened at Cannes.5.

    Nevertheless, I'm always struck by the fact that this film is, theologically speaking, very conservative. It clearly pre-supposes that Mary is a virgin before and during her pregnancy and yet was banned and heavily criticised. In contrast, just four years later the far more revisionist and critical Jesus of Montreal was given the Cannes Ecumenical Jury prize, as voted for by religious representatives. The most likely explanation is that this is due to the film's heavy focus on Mary's naked body. Perhaps this at least, a victory of images over script, may have given Godard some pleasure.

    At its heart there is an interesting question - "How would Mary have felt about the changes to her body throughout her pregnancy?" After all the giving of her consent was momentary, but she paid a high cost for that over the next nine months, and forever after. As Marie herself says at one point "Being a virgin should mean being available or free, not being hurt". Many expectant mothers feel a degree of animosity about the difference between their initial expectations about pregnancy and the reality. It's more than possible that Mary's attitudes also swung back and forth a fair bit, as we see here in the scene of Mary's "long dark night of the soul". Nevertheless the way the film explores these issues fails to draw them out as well as it might have.

    None of which is to say that there is a shortage of ideas in the film. Indeed there's no shortage either of the kind of philosophising that was so typical of the French New Wave. Early on a professor tells his class "The astonishing truth is that life was willed, desired, anticipated, organised, programmed by a determined intelligence" and the film in general seems to move between an acceptance of God's existence but a rejection of his methods. In one of Marie's lengthy monologues she mutters "God's a creep, a coward who won't fight, who counts on ass alone...a vampire who suffered me in him".

    The use of "vampire" here is probably a reference to Dreyer's 1932 Vampyr. As is typical of Godard Hail Mary cites the work of numerous artists including Dreyer. As Marie gives birth to Jesus we hear a man speak the words "What a strange road I had to take to reach you". It's a quote from the final scene of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket and it's followed up almost immediately by a shot of a donkey, doubtless referencing Bresson's Christ-figure film Au Hasard Balthazar. There's even a shot of Mary posed like Mantegna's painting "Lamentation of Christ".

    But Mary's language here is also an example of the way the film plays the sacred against the profane. "Here's $500 for God's sake" says Gabriel to persuade Joseph to drive him to the petrol station where he delivers the annunciation under the unblinking light of the forecourt. It's clear that this Mary will remain as chaste as the biblical Mary, even as her use of swear words sets her apart from the Mary of church tradition. All the leading characters, be they saints in waiting or angels, swear or take the name of God in vain. Confronted with the news of Mary's pregnancy, Joseph blames "Guys with big cocks". Mary uses the "c" word as she wrestles with God's unusual calling.

    Gabriel is accompanied here and elsewhere by a young girl. The pair reappear miraculously later in the film - emphasising their divine mandate - and Gabriel appears once more at the film's close. Also making an appearance is a character called Eva, her biblical significance underlined by her taking a bite from an apple close to the camera. She is contrasted with the chaste Marie, in a similar fashion to 1 Tim 2 contrasts Mary and Eve. Eva gives herself freely but is left alone towards the end. Mary stays with Joseph ans takes pride in her son. Many Annunciation paintings represent the Garden of Eden around the peripheries of the main picture and here the inclusion of this seemingly unconnected story works in a similar fashion.6

    This constant attention to, referencing of and subversion of Christianity's visual traditions is what sets Hail Mary apart from so many other Bible films. Godard my only have been grabbing headlines on this production due to the ensuing controversy, rather than his artistry, but the fingerprints of a great master are all over this piece. Even if we're ultimately forced to concede it's far from his best work.

    Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985) - Frequently accompanied by The Book of Mary by Anne-Marie Miévielle

    1 - Thomson, David, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, (4th Edition, 2003) Little, Brown. p.342
    2 - O'Brien, Catherine, "The Celluloid Madonna: From Scripture to Screen" (2011) New York, Columbia University Press, p.137
    3 - Dieckmann, Katherine in Sterritt, David, "Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews" (Jackson, 1998) p.169
    4 - Dieckmann, p.169
    5 - "Godard Has A Bad Day In Cannes...And Tries To Withdraw 'Hail Mary' In Italy", Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 11th May 1985
    6 - O'Brien, p. 45

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    Saturday, March 12, 2016

    Video Clips for The Young Messiah

    I first blogged about the film adaption of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" almost decade ago. So it's a little frustrating that now it has finally made it to the big screen - albeit under the new name Young Messiah - I have no way of seeing it (at least until it either gets released in the UK or comes out on DVD). But perhaps I should really say "seeing all of it" because at the time of writing quite a large proportion of it is available to view as clips online. That's hardly unique for films these days, least of all Bible films, the amount of footage available before the release of 2014's Noah was considerable. But I thought I may as well post all the links so that anyone who wants to whet their appetite before going to catch it this weekend, or who wants to catch a glimpse of what those in North American are getting to see, can join in too.

    Given the nature of the clips here it's hard to put them in chronological order. The majority of the film is not set during the gospel stories but rather between the nativity narratives and the time we next encounter Jesus at the age of 12. Indeed most of the film takes place when Jesus is seven and therefore consists largely of fictional/legendary stories of Jesus, or the events of the Nativity told via flashback - which can of course happen in almost any order. Anyway, here are the links:

    As you'd expect there are various TV Spots and teaser trailers around at the moment, but this is the main one and it contains a number of points of interest. Firstly, there's the scene which, with a nod to the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas", features Jesus bringing a bird (back to?) life. This incident was also included in the US (but not international) cut of Jesus (1999). It's also noticeable that there's quite a few shots of the film's biggest name, Sean Bean. I get the impression though that Bean is not really in this film for that long. Bean, of course, has Bible film form having starred over twenty years ago in the Bible Collection's Jacob back in 1994. I also like the use of the words from Phil. 2.

    The Divine Plan
    This is one of the more recent clips to emerge and might be one of the best. I think it's strong precisely because it's stripped away of any miracles and doesn't feature the child Jesus and just comes down to the two actors playing Joseph and Mary going head to head. For all the healing birds, big sets and large crowd scenes of some of the other clips I suspect that this is a far more intimate film resting on the performances of its leads and, if so, this scene is quite promising.

    The Decision
    This is one of the scenes that stars Shaun Bean and it hints at another earlier in the film. I'm not familiar with the books, but I wonder if the intended trajectory for Bea's character is to be the centurion at the foot of the cross. That said Bean's character would be rather old by then so perhaps not.

    The Story
    This is the annunciation retold by Mary, an there's good and bad here. On the plus side telling the story from Mary's perspective works well and gives it a more subjective angle. It also saves the need for expensive/potentially cheesy/distracting special effects. Interestingly Jesus (1999) and The Miracle Maker (2000) also have Mary retelling the story to Jesus - although in both cases its the adult Jesus. I also like the way it emphasises how young Mary would likely have been. "I was just 14 when you were born, a girl really". On the downside the line about only telling you this story once seems bit odd. Why on earth would she only tell him once. And how come she was later happy telling it to people (who may have told it to others) such that it ended up in the gospels.

    The Fight
    This is quite an odd scene where Jesus gets bullied and, because - of course - the Prince of Peace can't fight back - has to rely on someone else to do his violence for him. I'm not sure this scene really works, both because of that, and because the child actors aren't particularly convincing here.

    The Nativity
    ...specifically the arrival of the magi, which I notice is on foot.

    The Way of Prayer
    This was another of my favourite clips featuring a nice recontextualising of Psalm 23 as Jesus and his family have to walk through an avenue of men hanging on crosses. Again it recalls Jesus (1999) where John the Baptist and Jesus reminisce about seeing a similar scene as children and, of course, Spartacus (1960).

    The Power of Healing
    This is another shot of Jesus performing some kind of miracle, though it's not clear from the clip shown here exactly what healing occurs.

    The Enemy
    Perhaps this is the strangest of all these clips, most notably the question of who the guy with the blond hair and armoured fingers is. Putting this together with other clips suggest some kind of devil/demon type character )IMDb lists him as "the demon", presumably based on the credits.

    Joining the Family
    Here the Holy Family encounter an escaped slave woman and Jesus offers her a pair of shoes and persuades his family to take her with them back to Nazareth.

    Child's Questions
    Again this is one of those more intimate scenes and whilst Jesus is a bit too holier than thou (which I guess is the point) I buy his interaction with Joseph here, not least because bits of it reflect how I interact with my seven year old (who was sick whilst I was in the middle of writing this post).

    Ambassador Video
    This isn't a clip or a trailer, but something encouraging people to hire out theatres to hold special preview screenings. I'd be interested to know how many people went for this option. It's a little ambitious - "We're particularly looking for gold and platinum ambassadors" - at $100k for the later I rather imagine they are...


    As it looks like it will be a while until I can review this film, for now I suggest you read Steven D. Greydanus' enthusiastic take on the film ("Jesus has given so much to Superman over the years, it seems only right for Superman to give a little back."), Peter Chattaway's, as always, informative review and for balance a rather more scathing assassination courtesy of The Guardian ("Like a gif from Upworthy.com come to life").

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    Friday, March 04, 2016

    Hail Caesar! (2016)

    Hail Caesar! is not the first time the Coen brothers have delved into Hollywood's golden era. Barton Fink (1991) was the dark story of an up and coming writer with a crippling mental block and the devil for a neighbour. Fast forward 25 years and the Cohen's have returned to tinsel-town with a fluffier, although no less biting, take on life behind the scenes at the movies. The devil may no longer be living next door but the son of God is still stuck on a cross, even he stays almost entirely out of shot.

    In many ways the two films are complementary opposites of one another: Fink somehow constructs beautiful compositions out of disgustingly slimy wallpaper whereas everything in Hail Caesar! is pristine, brightly-coloured and gleaming and yet still manages to seem ugly and vulgar. Fink deals almost exclusively with a writer and occasionally a producer, but never enters the world of directors and actors, whereas in Hail Caesar! it's the writers and producers who almost don't exist, instead the focus is on the stars, the directors and primarily the studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). One has a sealed box that remains tantalisingly closed; the other has a case that is so full of money Mannix struggles to keep it shut. Fink is given a B-movie wrestler picture after he's told his familiarity with "the poetry of the streets...would rule out westerns, pirate pictures, screwball, Bible, Roman...". Hail Caesar! shows various films in the process of being made, almost all of them falling into one of those categories. Fink's crime is a brutal murder, Hail Caesar!'s a kidnapping that could really do with a bit of focus. But Fink doesn't have Bible films and Hail Caesar! does, and what's more they're being done like no-one has ever done them before. But more of that later.

    Whilst the publicity for this film has focussed on Clooney, really the film's leading character is 50s Hollywood itself. It's unashamedly a film for lovers of the studio era. The tributes, parodies and references come thick and fast. Mannix is a fictionalised version of a real Hollywood fixer of the same name. There's a Gene Kelly figure (Channing Tatum), an Esther Williams figure (Scarlett Johansson) and a joke about Ben Hur around every corner. Paranoid communists hide out at Malibu Beach whilst Mannix has to bribe and lie to Police and reporters to keep his 'wholesome' stars from getting the wrong kind of attention.

    And then there's Clooney. As the studio's top actor Baird Whitlock, Clooney's character isn't based on any one actor in particular, but he's certainly at least one part actors such as Robert Taylor and Richard Burton, one part Ulysses Everett McGill and, I suspect, one part George Clooney. Certainly his getting slapped round the face for expressing his lefty views is hardly something with which Clooney is unfamiliar. Whitlock is arguably an even bigger idiot than his predecessors in the Coen's "numbskull trilogy" and yet when the moment comes, he's able to turn on the star power in such a way that it leaves a lump in his on-set colleagues' throats.

    That moment comes at the climax of the film Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ which had hitherto provided viewers with several hilarious moments of over-wrought dialogue, unduly earnest performances, portentous voice-overs and good old-fashioned scenery chewing. It also manages to squeeze in almost identical shots from Ben Hur and an almost ginger-headed Christ. That Whitlock's climatic turn has such a marked effect on set is something of a shock - up to this point Whitlock's photo-play had seemed utterly purged of any sense of genuine awe, humility, reflection or wonder. Even the religious advisers Mannix called on in order to make sure he "got everyone's two cents" seem to be particularly shallow - more bothered about the plausibility of being able to swap horses in a chariot race than how the film might effect those who see it.

    And yet the film, our film if you will, is one of the Coen's most religious films to date, it's just that its religion, its true religion, happens far away from the self-righteous clap-trap on the screen. Indeed it's noticeable that when Mannix views the rushes after the day's filming, the key moment of divine presence, is fittingly absent, represented only by an intertitle explaining that it has yet to be filmed. There's simply no link between faith and the biblical film Whitlock is shooting.

    Significantly, the only time we see Jesus' face, it's on a crucifix in the film's opening shot. The shot's taken from inside the church where Mannix is going to a confessional. Yet what's on his mind isn't what we might think of as the big stuff, such as bribing the police - it's about his failures as a husband. Mrs Mannix (Alison Pill) barely appears on screen, but Mannix feels palpably torn between doing the right thing by his wife and child at home and protecting his almost child-like stars at Capitol studios. It's no surprise that at the end of the film 27 hours later he's back in the confessional having (once again?) delivered his stars from evil.

    Of course, that might just be because the confessional is the one place where he isn't being constantly hounded by other people's needs (in fact the priest almost seems to want to get rid of him). Mannix flies from meeting after meeting, placating directors saddled with hapless actors, avoiding a pair of inexhaustibly tenacious reporters (both played Tilda Swinton as this being a Coen brothers film they happen to be twins), reporting to his bosses in New York, listening to offers for a new job and arranging for one of his actresses to adopt her own baby. Perhaps the church is the one place Mannix can find some inner peace. Would that it'were so simple.