• 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


    Saturday, April 30, 2016

    40 Nights (2016)

    At a basic level filmmaking is all about choices. Where to position the camera, how to deliver a particular line, how to arrange the characters in the shot and so on. With Bible films these choices become all the more significant - you're adapting a text that has been interpreted so many times before, sometimes with the same choices being repeated so often that they almost stop being choices. They've become ingrained to such an extent that many people just see them as the way things were. So for me the most interesting Bible films are the ones that make brave and informed choices; that are deliberate about how they are doing things and the way they want to do them.

    It's clear right from the start of 40 Nights (2016) that the filmmakers were not afraid to make interesting choices. The opening shot is from a low angle and nicely filtered. And it's in proper widescreen rather than the made for DVD 16:9 that is typical of so many Christian-sponsored Bible movies. Then there's the nature of the project. Rather than adding another sprawling, objective-feeling epic, this one is more personal and psychological. It's restricted to Jesus' 40 days fasting in the desert and it's never quite clear how much of what we see is real and how much is just in Jesus' head. There are flashbacks, of course, to some of Jesus' earlier experiences, but even these are subject to the human weaknesses of his memory and in several cases to his memories of his parents' memories as well.

    Indeed perhaps the only scene to be presented subjectively is its opening one - a prologue of sorts with John baptising Yeshua (as he's called at least once) in the River Jordan - but the Holy Spirit descends as a dove only figuratively, not literally and whilst Jesus is affirmed in his sonship, we don't hear the words that he does. The kind of interesting choice that some people will take umbrage with, but is utterly in keeping with Mark's gospel.

    The script also inserts a couple of nice scenes in here before Jesus heads into the desert. There are some initial interactions with James and John a night-time vision of the devil and talk about practicalities such as provisions, all of which establish Jesus as a human person. These opening scenes are vital as they ground the character in reality and make him someone the audience can relate to and identify with. From here on his experience is outside of our normal experiences and determined largely by what is going on inside his head. The prologue is slight, but it's a significant bridge into all that is to come.

    No less significant are the flashbacks that repeatedly break-up the desert time. We see the Jesus' birth, experiences as a boy Jesus, leaving his parents (who he calls "Abba and Eema" - a nice touch) and the death of his father. These are jumbled up, rather as our own memories come out in no particular order and fleeting, more driven by what Jesus is experiencing in the desert than shipped in as an orderly presentation of his early life.

    There are other deft links to the other parts of the gospels as well. Early on Jesus recites the Lord's Prayer and elsewhere he mutters lines from the Psalms, or from his future teaching "The Father desires mercy not sacrifice". There's quite a strong nod towards John's Gospel here, particularly the passages that talk of food and water (John 6 & John 4). It's as if Jesus is practising what he will say, still working it out. As if the message he has is growing inside him yet but it's not fully formed. Twice we hear "I am the way to truth" which sounds like John 14:6, but isn't quite. Perhaps this is just a translation I'm not familiar with, or a paraphrase to keep the audience thinking, but it feels like Jesus hasn't quite fully pinned it down yet. His later work is still being formed and we're privileged to see part of the process. As the film draws to a close he stops to talk to a shepherd boy, who happens to be descended from one of the shepherds that visited Jesus as a baby, and it's him that uses the phrase "the Good Shepherd" first.

    This isn't to say that the film is wordy and weighed down in dialogue, in fact it's surprisingly visual and tactile. Jesse Low's camera repeatedly lingers on the physical/earthy aspects of the world to which Jesus is confined, drawing our attention to the water, light, wind and animals which inhabit this rocky world. The choice of locations is really inspired, it's not just a sand-pit on the back of a studio lot, it's a fascinating place of contradictions - a world that's barren yet beautiful; a place where one person might feel close to God whilst another felt deserted by him; where on one level the locations all feel the same and yet on another they're very much the same. It's notable that in this film Jesus isn't just fasting from food, he's fasting water and there are various little touches which quickly make what Jesus is experiencing far more real than any other Jesus film I can think of.

    Credit for a lot of this must go to Low and his director of photography Jesse Aragon who find the beauty in the landscape to for Perry as producer who seems to make what I imagine was a fairly low budget stretch a long way. By avoiding a sprawling running time, star names and expensive crowds of extras and investing instead in getting the right locations and a decent technical team, the filmmakers enable 40 Nights to move a notch or two above the level that many more expensive films achieve.

    Of course any film of this nature depends to a degree on the portrayals of Jesus and Satan. Jesus is played by the film's write-producer DJ Perry who has a couple of other Bible films under his belt (The Book of Ruth (2009) and Judges (2006) a loose modernisation). Perry is closer to St. John's "not yet fifty" than Luke's "about thirty", but gives a fairly solid performance in the lead role and gives Jesus the right mix of strength, vulnerability and humanity that this particular version of the story requires.

    But what's more interesting is the decision to cast Satan not as one actor but as several. This isn't apparent at first. When we first encounter Satan he's a teenager, little more than a boy. This is perhaps one of the most interesting choices in the whole film. Whilst Last Temptation of Christ portrayed the devil as a young girl, this was a deliberate act to confuse and disorientate. Jesus is meant to be confused and perhaps mistake her for an angel rather than a devil.

    Here though it's clear who this young man is, it's just a bit of a shock. We're used to Satan being a middle aged man, a disembodied voice in Jesus' head or a seductive young woman; but a teenager? With those more familiar appearances we're used to the accompanying means of temptation, the seductive urge to impress someone beautiful (even if she is a devil) or the mix of rationality, cynicism, power, menace and experience of the older characters. The genius of this choice, and of actor Drew Wise's performance, is it never occurred to me before to think of Satan as being annoying. Now that I've seen it, of course, it's obvious. People so often give way and do the wrong thing just because they get nagged into something, or they have just had enough of the voice telling them to do something and just want it to go away. And not only do Wise and Low conceive of the idea, they also execute it with efficiency. Never mind forty days, I only lasted about ten minutes before I realised I would have been ready to eat the bread, jump off the temple and declare myself king just to get the thing over with.

    The other incarnations of the devil are less noteworthy. Satan number two is more middle aged, and probably the worst decision the team made in the film was to occasionally use some kind of effect on his voice, and briefly we get the devil presented as a younger woman too, but the final incarnation presents the devil as an old man giving the encounter a sense of progression and of a journey which is drawing to its conclusion.

    The importance of what's at stake becomes more apparent here as well. Whilst Jesus' initial encounters focussed on where he had come from, his need to satiate his stomach, his moving away from his parents, in this final stage the flash backs go back further and start to mix with flash forwards. There are brief shots of Moses striking the rock and of Adam and Eve, for example, indicating that what's at stake isn't just to do with Jesus' own personal sense of godliness, but that of both his people and of all of humanity. In an extra-biblical scene we witness his mother saying to him "Your smiles have become rare, your laughter less", indeed even she appears to have "tempted" him to stick to the safe path. Unsurprisingly we see Jesus making a go of picking up Joseph's carpentry business, but wrestling with the sense that it's not his ultimate purpose. Not dissimilarly there's the occasional flash forward hinting at the crucifixion and his destiny. Jesus seems to grasp much of what his role is about, yet you get the impression he's still trying to make sense of things. Sometimes he persists because of his understanding, but at other times it's just because of his experience. "God's love is like a warm dwelling on a cold night".

    It's tempting (if you'll pardon the pun) to systematically work through all the other interesting choices the film makes, like ending the film with Jesus "breaking the fourth wall", or including all the minor embellishments the film makes that really add a sense of needle into Jesus and Satan's encounter, or but to do so would be to rob the film of what makes it such rewarding viewing, the little twists and turns that make a few lines of ancient text an interesting and engaging hour and a half's viewing. I must admit that I wasn't really expecting to like this one: but now I'm not only looking forward to watching it again, but I also have high hopes for the next two entries in Perry's Quest Trilogy as well.

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    Monday, April 25, 2016

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #02 Joseph's Trials in Egypt

    Last week I posted a silent Bible film puzzle that I was struggling to identify and as I've been struggling with others all week I thought I might turn it into a series. (There's a very old couple of posts that fit with this series as well at that link).

    Anyway, this one revolves around a film about Joseph (son of Jacob not Jesus' guardian) which was released in the US as Joseph's Trials in Egypt in 1914. Now there are a number of other films about Joseph released around that time. The first is Thanhouser's Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914), which is available to view on Vimeo. It was directed by W. Eugene Moore. Another US film was released the same year - Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors - directed by produced by Sawyer, directed by Louis N. Parker and released by the Dormet film company it ran to six reels. There's some record of both of these films having the alternate title Joseph and his Brethren, but these two films do seem to be separate.

    The confusion starts with the other well attested Joseph film of the era, Henri Andréani's Joseph, Fils de Jacob. David Shepherd discusses this film in some detail in his book "The Bible on Silent Film" (pp.149-154). Interestingly addition to the detailed description of the plot he also explains that Andréani had split from Pathé just before the release of the film and produced the film himself (although Pathé still distributed in).

    The IMDb (which I don't consider particularly reliable on obscure old films like this) considers this film to be the original title for the one in question, Joseph's Trials in Egypt. It's not surprising that the films have been linked as various sources refer to Trials as being French in origin and produced by Path&eacute.

    However, I'm not sure the IMDb is correct on this point. Firstly none of the people who have compiled lists of these films before seems to list this as an alternate title to Joseph, Fils de Jacob. That may not seem so remarkable for Campbell and Pitts, but it seems unlikely, to me at least, that if there was an established link that Shepherd would not have heard of it given the depth of his research; or that if he had heard of it that he wouldn't have mentioned it.

    Secondly there is also the fact I mentioned above regarding Andréani's split from Pathé. This may have left Pathé feeling that they needed to make their own Joseph film to round off their series. Verreth lists the film by its English title, but also provides a French translation Les épreuves de Joseph en Égypte. Might this have been the film's original title?

    Or am I just over-complicating the issue? Should I have just gone with the IMDb's verdict and list Joseph's Trials in Egypt as an alternate title to Joseph, Fils de Jacob? If anyone has any evidence on this one way or the other I would be interested in hearing it.

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    Sunday, April 17, 2016

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #01 Gaumont's Esther (1910)

    At present I'm doing some work on a list of films from the Hebrew Bible. It's one of those tasks that you start off thinking will be a big job and then it turns out to be massive. The end is in sight but I'm left trying to figure out if certain films are the same with different title or different films, which is particularly tricky when you delve into the silent period and the period between 1907-1914 when films were short, often released together but also often sold section by section.

    Which brings me to the film/series Esther from 1910. It was made by Louis Feuillade for Gaumont and starred Renée Carl, Léonce Perret, Madeleine Roch. But according to the AFI it was released as two films on two different dates - The Marriage of Esther on the 11th June 1910 and Esther and Mordecai a week later on the 18th June 1910. Dumont (2009) lists these as two films, one simply called Esther and the other called Esther et Mordochée. The IMDb joins them together under the title The Marriage of Esther although if you view it on the iPad app the title is changed to Esther. It lists all three titles as alternatives.

    David Shepherd discusses the film briefly in "The Bible on Silent Film". He lists it as simply one film Esther and indicates that it exists in both the BFI and the Gaumont Pathé archives and describes it on pages 104-5 which you can read in Google Books. It sounds like he has seen it. One key point though is that he describes it as part of a trilogy, though I'm not sure what evidence exists for this aside from his own assertion. Campbell and Pitts mention this only in passing (as part of the easily missed section on page 5 of other Gaumont films) but mention it as two films Esther and Mordecai and The Marriage of Esther, in that order.

    So whilst my hunch is that these films were originally released as one in France, I'm going to list them as two as that appears to be how they were released in the US and that it seems to be the only way to clear up the relationship between the three titles. Unfortunately, whilst I like to call the films by their titles in their original language that would be problematic here so I will have to opt for their English titles. The more I go into this project the more I realise just how many twists and quirks there are.

    A couple more bits of information on this one. Firstly. There are some excellent frame grabs of this film at NitrateVille thanks to Bruce Calvert of the Silent Film Still Archive. These also show that the film was hand coloured rather than just black and white. Disappointingly I can't seem to find this anywhere to buy or view. Neither it, nor any Bible films are part of Kino's Gaumont Treasures Vol. 1 DVD despite the fact that two of the three discs are dedicated to this films director Louis Feuillade and star Léonce Perret. Indeed given that the other disc is given over to Alice Blanche Guy it's a little disappointing that not a single Bible film makes the cut. Opens the door for another project perhaps...

    Lastly, the IMDb also includes a couple of photos of the film and there's also a nice summary of the two parts taken from "Moving Picture World".
    PART ONE: "The Marriage of Esther" King Abasueris, who is now generally understood to have been Xerxes, and who ruled over India and its provinces about B.C. 521, is recorded to have cast aside his wife and directs that it be heralded throughout the domain that he is in search of a new spouse. He issues instructions to have brought before him for his approval the most beautiful young girls of all his lands. Accordingly, the maidens are led to the palace, and we see them being sumptuously gowned and bejeweled before being brought into the presence of his Majesty. Among the number, the king is greatly impressed by the beauty and grace of a handsome young Jewish girl. This one is Esther, who was adopted by her uncle, Mordecai, and by him brought to the palace of the king. Esther's beauty surpasses that of all the others and she is crowned Queen by Abasueris. Mordecai is appointed to sit at the king's gateway.

    PART TWO: "Esther and Mordecai" Mordecai is appointed to sit at the King's gateway. While on duty he discovers a plot to assassinate the King and discloses the facts, whereupon the King orders that this brave deed be recorded in the Annals of the Kingdom. Among the King's favorites, Haman is supreme. He soon becomes violently jealous of Mordecai and plans his destruction. As Mordecai is a Jew, Haman makes preparations to massacre the entire race and thereby complete his revenge on Mordecai. About this time the King decides to make a review of the Annals and to his amazement finds no record there of the good deed of Mordecai, whereupon Haman is ordered to give honors to Mordecai. This only serves to increase the jealousy of Haman. Through the gracious intercession of Esther, Mordecai soon has another and greater victory over Haman. As the time for the massacre of the Israelites approaches. Esther, who has been told all by her uncle, Mordecai, invites Haman to dine with her and the King at the palace. During the feast she discloses the fact that she is a Jewess and declares that all those who are enemies of the King and are not worthy of his favor, whereupon the King, who has been informed of the full facts, orders Haman delivered up to the guards and has him hanged on the very gallows Haman had designed for Mordecai. The victory of the Israelites is now the cause of great rejoicing.
    It's a shame that the BFI have taken all the details of their archive details off their website, as that might have been a potentially useful source of information. I don't understand that decision at all...

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    Tuesday, April 12, 2016

    More Films About Jephthah

    Back in 2013 I wrote a piece about the portrayal of Jephthah on film. Since then I have become aware of several other films about Jephthah, so I thought I would bring them all together here. I'm aware of five in total, though in an age when anyone can own a video camera and video editing software there are probably a few more. Most of these however were released in just a five year period, from 1909 to 1913. Here are some details.

    Jephthah's Daughter (1909)
    Vitagraph. Dir: J. Stuart Blackton
    I discussed Blackton's film at some length back in 2013, but there's also a bit on it in David Shepherd's book "The Bible on Silent Film". He notes
    Much as in The Judgement of Solomon, the characters of Jephthah's Daughter offer the depth and range of emotional responses only hinted at in the biblical narrative itself, but increasingly expected by audiences steeped in the melodrama of early twentieth=century cinema (p.70)

    La Fille de Jephté (1910). 
    Gaumont. Dir: Léonce Perret
    (Pictured above - there's another image at IMDb)
    Whilst this film is sometimes attributed to Louise Feuillade, it was actually made by it's star Leonce Perret (who plays Jephthah) and features additional performances from Luitz-Morat and Jeanne-Marie Laurent. It's apparently based on a scenario by Abel Gance having been inspired by the poem by Alfred de Vigny. It was also released in English speaking countries as The Vow

    A summary of the plot, from a 1910 edition of "Moving Picture Magazine", is also available on IMDb.

    Jepthah's Daughter (1913).
    Diana Film/Warner Bros. Dir: J Farrell MacDonald
    1913 saw the release of not one but two films about the errant judge. I discussed McDonald's entry in 2013 and there are a couple of stills with my review as well.

    Surprisingly David Shepherd doesn't mention this one.

    La Fille de Jephté (1913). 
    Pathé. Dir: Henri Andréani
    Andréani produced a string on Bible films for Pathé in the 1910s - at least six biblical films in 1913 alone. Whilst Shepherd lists this film in his filmography, and discusses Andréani at length in the book, he doesn't really discuss this film. However, there is a summary in the Pathé archive which suggests that the film seems to broadly follow the biblical account. Here's a translation of that summary:
    Jephthah was a brave warrior of Gilead; disinherited by his brothers, he withdrew to the mountain, began to lead a band of adventurers and indulged in a kind of banditry. He thus acquired a great reputation for boldness and courage, and soon the leaders of his tribe - enslaved by the Ammonites - came to him and asked him to put himself at their head to drive out the oppressors. Jephthah agreed, but on condition that after the war he would remain the head of Gilead.

    He completely defeated the Ammonites on the banks of the Arnon. He had vowed, if triumphant, to sacrifice to Jehovah the first person who would come out of his house to meet him. Upon his return, his only daughter walked first to the sound of instruments, at the head of her companions. Jephthah, overwhelmed with grief and despair, tears his clothes and in tears announces the promise that his mouth has uttered. The girl, resigned, asks for a grace period of two months with her companions on the mountains of Gilead, to mourn the disgrace of being neither wife nor mother. Then she offers the sacrifice to fulfil the vow of Jephthah

    Bat Yiftach [Jephtah's Daughter] (1996). 
    Dir: Einat Kapach/Eynat Kapach
    The only modern film about Jephthah of any note is by Israeli filmmaker Einat Kapach (who may spell his first name with a "y"). There's a clip from this film on YouTube which I've embeded below.

    There's also a little more about Kapach here and the same site contains some more information about the film including this synopsis.
    The year is 1984. A Jewish family is on its way by foot from Ethiopiato Sudan, from where they will board a plane for Israel. The father, whom the family’s life depends on, is seized by brigands. Things change when his eldest daughter comes across the place. The story is typical of what happened to hundreds of Ethiopians on their difficult journey to Israel, in the 1980’s, when they crossed the desert, in order to reach the Promised Land
    You can actually pay to watch the film online.

    A few more notes on this one. It's 19 minutes long. The English title does appear to be Jephtah's Daughter with only two aitches. And there appears to be a variety of release dates from 1996 to 1998 (and even 2003). I'm a little pushed for time but I might try and review this one if I can.

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    Friday, April 01, 2016

    Killing Jesus (2015)

    Killing Jesus (2015), based on Bill O'Reilly's 2013 book of the same name has the veneer of being history, but very little of the substance. At a glance the veneer is fairly convincing. Jesus (Haaz Sleiman) is of Middle-Eastern descent - Lebanese to be precise, and likes to embellish various historic-sounding details, like giving Joanna the wife of Chuza a far greater role than in any Jesus film before it, but strip away the veneer and below it's chipboard. There are chunks of real wood in it, sure, but it's not the solid history that we were promised in the trailer.

    Which isn't to say the piece is something to be overlooked. For one thing it's usually fairly nice to look at, Sleiman and various others' fake-looking beards aside. The film's $12 million is largely up on the screen with expensive filters, costumes and sets lending the production an air of authenticity. And Sleiman's performance is fairly solid whilst also being fairly different from the majority of performances in the role. I'm not sure I necessarily warmed to this Jesus, but I think that says more about me and my phony expectations than it does about the film.

    There are a couple of good scenes as well. In one, early in the film, we witness Jesus and his family eating together. Whilst the script doesn't insist that these are Jesus' biological sisters and brothers, it certainly has the feel of a close knit family, who are accepting of one another even if they have some concerns over the path Jesus is taking. In another Jesus holds firm to a boy who is said to be demon-possessed but seems, to our modern eyes, to be suffering from an epileptic attack. The people fear the boy is killed but Jesus remains steadfast and the boy is restored. It's a nicely open-ended portrayal which puts the emphasis on Jesus' love, patience, faith and forebearance, even as it refuses to force a particular view as to what actually happened.

    However, the films problems stem from the heightened expectations of a more authentic version of the story which the filmmakers have been keen to encourage. At the heart of the story is a power play between five men - Jesus, Caiaphas (Rufus Sewell, also with beard troubles), Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate and Judas - but the film gets the power dynamics all wrong. Historically speaking Pilate held all the cards. His position was difficult, certainly. The numbers were not in his favour and so he had to rely to fear of reprisals to keep the people in check. But the few bits of history we do have about Pilate suggest that, if anything, he was over capable in this area Luke 13:1 tells us about certain "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices". Similarly, Josephus tells us that eventually the governor was recalled to Rome for the severity with which he dealt with some Samaritans. A man too harsh for the Romans is a harsh man indeed.

    Instead we're treated to the same weak, vacillating, ponderous Pilate so familiar in the Jesus film genre and so unlikely from an historical angle. And again we're treated to a scheming stereotype-laden Caiaphas who pulls all the strings and strives to get Jesus killed off even if he gets a speech here and there where he tries to convince us he's doing all for the people. In contrast Herod Antipas, historically speaking a nasty piece of work if ever there was one, not only needs his arm twisting by his wife and her sexually-precocious daughter, but also needs Pilate to tell him to kill John as well. Then there's the moment when Judas chucks away his 30 pieces of silver, not in a grand gesture of repentance, but to buy a bit of rope to hang himself on.

    These faults aren't unique to Killing Jesus of course, they are far too common to Jesus films, but this films promoted itself on the basis of being more historical to them. Yet it's put to shame, historically speaking, by the BBC's handling of the power dynamics between Pilate, Caiaphas and Jesus in The Passion (2008).

    Then there's also the screenplays strangely literal accommodation of the contrasts between the canonical gospels. Jesus prophesies th fall of the temple twice: once at the start of his ministry in words (Mark's words but John's location) and once during the week before his death (Synoptics). Similarly Peter benefits from two miraculous catches of fish, one at the start of his time with Jesus (Luke 5) and one afterwards (as per John 21).

    It's that second depiction on which so much hangs, because rather than this following the suggestion from a mysterious man on the beach to cast his nets out Peter is shown to be all alone, praying in the heat of the day. Peter looks skyward, slightly surprised, and seems to take this of proof as a miracle. Presumably we're supposed to see as convincing him of the resurrection because we never see the resurrected Jesus, but the music and imagery is upbeat as if we have.

    The only other post burial scene we see if of a group of men and women discovering an empty tomb. And here there is a similarly unsatisfactory compromise between the gospel accounts. The women (and men) don't flee in fear of the empty tomb (as per Mark), nor do they get the reassuring explanation from an angel (Matthew) a dazzlingly attired man (Mark) or two (Luke) or Jesus himself (John). Yet suddenly everything makes sense and it's all smiles.

    The problem is that this more "sceptical" ending is that it fails to give any reason why these people interpreted an empty tomb and a luckily located shoal of fish as proof of Jesus' resurrection. And this absence is highlighted all the more powerfully by the voice-over which concludes the film by telling the audience about the traditions surrounding the deaths of the disciples. Peter's upside-down crucifixion is referred to, but it's hard to believe that but for a second decent-sized catch of fish he would have remained the petrified sceptic of the High-Priest's courtyard.

    From another angle, however, this all just seems like excessive literalism. Even some relatively conservative believers will concede that perhaps John moved this story to the end of his gospel due to its metaphorical power. To depict it as a literal event that happened in reality, but which Peter profoundly misattributed is a severe failure to understand the genre. Likewise whilst the empty tomb was unexpected it seems unlikely that all of those present would simultaneously jump to the same conclusion, particularly as Jesus had not really predicted his resurrection in a great deal of detail.

    Such an ending, then, falls between two stools. It's not nearly sceptical enough for the sceptic, nor is it devout enough for the faithful. It's neither bold enough to form a solid proposal of what really happened that day, nor is it trusting enough to depicit the events as they are described. And no amount of cinematic polish is going to restore its credibility.