• 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, May 23, 2016

    Prefiguring Jesus in Jeremiah (1998)

    Way back in 2009 I compiled a scene guide for The Bible Collection's 1998 film Jeremiah and concluded a write up of a few additional comments on it by saying:
    I'm going to make a separate post another day to look at the way that the Jeremiah of this film prefigures Jesus, particularly the Jesus from the later film in the same series.
    So I thought it was probably about time I got around to it, particularly as somebody asked me about this the other day.

    I don't think there is a cast iron case for saying that the filmmakers were trying to make the Jeremiah of their film into a "type" of Christ. However, there are a few points of interest where the film makes a few additions/interpretations which move things in that direction and particularly in the direction of the Jesus of the Bible Collection's own, later, film Jesus (dir. Roger Young, 1999).

    This tendency is most pronounced at the start of the film. Early in the film, when Jeremiah is still a child, he goes to the temple and we're led to believe - by his wide eyes if nothing else - that this is his first time in the city itself. There are quite a lot of similarities, between these scenes and those of The Bible Collection's Jesus being left behind at the temple. The visual identification here is quite strong, not least because the both films are shot on the same set, but there are also similarities in the way the two scenes are shot as well. The scenes include shots from behind the groups as they enter through an archway which frames the temple, and point of view and reaction shots as the two boys both take in the sights of the temple for the first time. It can be argued that this is, if not an actual coincidence, then just a result of the nature of the Bible Collection project, but I'm fairly happy with the school of interpretation which takes each film as a visual "text" not limited by authorial intent.

    An additional factor in this scenes is that when Jeremiah enters the temple the shots from his point of view and the accompanying reaction shots convey a mild sense of disgust. It's difficult to pin down what this is due to but it's something that the film expands on when Jeremiah returns to the temple as not only an adult, but significantly as an adult who is now seeing these sights through God's eyes as well as his own. (It's interesting that these later PoV shots, then, become a shot from God's PoV, not just Jeremiah's).

    Before all that however, we have the scene where Jeremiah hears God's call. It's notable how the film very much interprets and embellishes this scene - in the Bible Jeremiah says he's "young" but that could mean a young man and there's no specific mention of him being caught up in a vision. These combine then to mean that rather than Jeremiah being a young adult who hears God's call, that this Jeremiah is someone who knows from a very early age that they are in some way very special, chosen by God and set apart for a particular role. Again this nudges the portrayal of Jeremiah towards that of Jesus and increases the similarities between the brief, corresponding scenes of young boys with a special divine calling on their lives visiting the centre of worship for the first time.

    A while after this the adult Jeremiah revisits the temple and again we get these PoV shots and the suggestion that Jeremiah is unhappy with what he is seeing. As this opening act of the film progresses it becomes clear that there are two things which are disturbing him.

    The first seems to be linked to the slaughtering of the lambs. Whilst this isn't verbally expressed it appears that this is more than mere squeamishness, there seems to be some suggestion that Jeremiah thinks his message, and living faithfully before God, means that this rather unpalatable system is a little defunct.

    Secondly, however, these point-of-view / reaction shots are also very familiar, for those who have watched a good number of Jesus films at least, to the shots that frequently precede Jesus' clearing of the temple. And true enough, a little while after this Jeremiah ventures down some of the side streets in the temple region and there he encounters some kind of market trader who is selling idols. The seller tries to persuade Jeremiah to buy something, but Jeremiah's outrage at this affront to God is palpable. And so he turns over the tables, in a way that is classically reminiscent of all those other turning the table scenes (for example, no-one lays a hand on Jeremiah or confronts him, they all just stand back and let him get one with it). This is the film's clearest attempt to draw parallels between its protagonist and Jesus - there's no corresponding passage to this in Jeremiah, it pure invention, or perhaps I should say borrowing.

    Another such embellishment is the romantic relationship Jeremiah has with one of his near neighbours. The text of Jeremiah does make it clear Jeremiah is not to marry (16:2), but this is a general command of celibacy, there's no indication that this prevented him from marrying a specific woman.

    Whilst the Gospels are silent about Jesus' marital status, in Young's film we find a very similar scenario: Like Jeremiah, Young's Jesus has to reject the woman he looks destined to marry to focus on God's call. This is a not uncommon feature of the Bible Collection series which inserts an extra-biblical love story into several of the biblical narratives which it covers, but the similarity is particularly notable here because in both films the lead character is in love but feels the call on his life in incompatible with this particular romantic relationship.Whilst Jeremiah has things work in a different way (the girl is sold as a slave), at its heart Jeremiah still has to reject the girl because of the call God puts on his life. There are several points of similarity with Jesus (1999) - the relationship appears chaste, but at the stage where an engagement looks on the cards. The girl still lives with her family and both families seem to approve. Then the girl is told it is off suddenly and that this sudden change of course is due to God's call.

    There are several other notable similarities between these two films. Firstly, some of the parental relationships are similar, in the first half of the film there are strong relationships with at least one parent and the protagonists is very much still under their wing. Ultimately, however, the lead's parents don't fully understand their child's call and things transition from the son being at the heart of the family home at the start of the film to almost no connection with parents in the respective films' second halves. The protagonists' fathers disappear in the second act having once been very prominent and close to their son in the first half of the film. The reasons are, of course,  different - Jeremiah's father's suffers an extreme embarrassment whereas Joseph dies in Jesus - but it seems strange that family relationships that are presented as being so close at the start of the films just disappear without a great deal of regret or mention of them in the second part of the film.

    Not unconnected is the similar kind of plot structure the two films share. We start with the protagonist in the family home, there's a brief scene of their childhood, and they look like they are following in the family trade. Then there's a break in those family relationships as God's call on the hero's life starts to come into effect and they leave home. There's a pivotal scene in the wilderness and then their ministry starts, getting up the noses of some, but crucially in both films not all, of the religious and political establishment. Of course, Jeremiah never dies, but there is a scene where he's tied up in a cage in a cruciform pose and hung up high for all the see (and when he's released the camera focusses, briefly, on the damage to his wrists).

    A couple of other things that might have been on my mind when I wrote that comment 7 years ago Firstly in the opening scenes - when all is supposedly well in the tribe of Judah - Jeremiah's family arrives in the temple in the middle of some kind of celebratory procession with lots of palm branches being waved in a very similar fashion to those we tend to see in many depictions of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There might be something in the text behind that decision, but, if so, I don't recall it.

    Then there's the way that Jeremiah's family are kind of seen as outsiders.At one point Oliver Reed's character asks "Why would God send a prophet from the wilderness when you are surrounded by schooled priests?", but Jeremiah was the son of a priest so this is kind of an odd thing to be added in to the text. Jesus of course was from an unknown family and a backwater town. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

    Finally there's the presentation of Jeremiah himself. The biblical Jeremiah's suffering is obviously one of his most well-known characteristics, and this is very much to the fore (corresponding to Jesus which doesn't really give much motive for his persecution at the hands of his enemies, but also Jesus as the suffering prophet in general), but other aspects, particularly ones that are quite unlike Jesus (such as chapters 40-49 where Jeremiah prophesies against other nations) are omitted.

    This isn't to say that the filmmakers are seeking to present Jeremiah as a type of Christ, or even that the parallels between the two men, or rather the two portrayals is remarkable, but there are certainly some parallels and some of those go a way beyond what is gleaned from the text itself.

    Incidentally a previous post on this subject referenced Neil MacQueen'S outline to the film which has since been moved. It is now available (again) at Sunday Software

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    Friday, May 13, 2016

    Interview with 40 Nights's DJ Perry

    I reviewed 40 Nights, the first entry in DJ Perry's The Quest Trilogy, last month and Perry was kind enough to do me an interview to share with you all. Whilst he's clearly motivated by his faith it's good to read a Christian filmmaker discuss his work without feeling he's using God as the key element in a sales pitch.

    BFB: When did you first start dreaming about this project and how did it start to come together?
    The Dream:
    I've always had a natural relationship with God from a very young age. There are so many amazing, breathtaking things in our vast known universe that the idea of God is an easy fit for most to understand. But Jesus? For me I've always been fascinated by Jesus, also realizing that everything we know has been subject to the flaws of memory, translation and additions and deletions meant to serve the human agenda. As a child of five, I recall looking deep into people's eyes who said they KNEW Jesus and I realized that for many, they were just words. It would be like, I KNOW GEORGE WASHINGTON, but they don't. They might know some words he spoke and actions he took but do they KNOW him? Now add a few thousand years or so and Jesus becomes more myth than man. Could a story about the humble beginnings of this man change that? Could people feel like they KNOW Jesus? I've always said, if Jesus came back the medium of film for storytelling (entertain and educate) might be something he would use to spread his message.

    The Process:
    I had played Benjamin in "The Book of Ruth, Journey of Faith" and many remarked on my look, it was reminding people of Jesus. I was also chosen from a 27 country search to play Jesus in a major studio release that put the entire Jesus story in the modern day. I had agreements in place and things looked good for the epic but it went south and was put into turn around. (Studio kill) My studies into the man kept bringing me back to the 40 nights in the wilderness. It was before all the grand stories we all know. I felt the conflict and weight that he must have felt, that sacrifice would bring. The inspiration to actually put the story to the page just came to me. I like to use the story of Noah as an example. If God came and told Noah to build a boat you don't question, you just do. So we built our "40 Nights" boat and just hope it floats. It lacks the mega P&A money for a wide theatrical release but it does play wonderful on the BIG SCREEN. Lightworx Distribution/Randy Maricle was the last piece of the puzzle that made it all come together. They are handling distribution our QUEST TRILOGY.

    BFB: What was the budget for the project and how did you go about getting it together?
    This film and actually all three in the trilogy are made for a modest amount of money. I felt these films NEEDED to be made and not sit in development hell for a decade. I've done much larger films but everyone cast and crew worked for a modest wage. For actors it was scale across the board and people came on board because of the love of the story. Let's just say that everyone who knows the budget is amazed at the end product. We also pride ourselves at staying on schedule and on budget which we continue to do. All the money came from private investors and we often have to turn investors away. I don't want to have more money just to have more money. But all our budgets are coming from private investors who really feel the power in our scripts/stories.

    BFB: I like that there's a bit more steel about this Jesus. Satan says at one point "I like this anger in you Jesus it shows that you are human". How much of this is because essentially what we're seeing is spiritual/internal or will this continue into the other films? Have you had much reaction to that?
    I've had so many people while filming and after viewing our movie shake my hand and tell me how much they appreciate the strong take on Jesus. He has been painted as this character floating through - a victim of circumstance. This is a man who worked with his hands and walked great distances. His intensity was showcased in the temple when he was flipping tables. He is weakened by choice to know what human weakness is. Our film does show Jesus in a stronger light versus many other films. The reaction to the choice has been extremely positive.

    BFB: With you being producer, writer and star I'm really interested in how your working relationship with Jessie Low functioned?
    My relationship with all directors is one of respect. They respect the business of what we are doing and I try to provide as much creative freedom within those lines. I was more hands on in this trilogy since they are all part of a greater vision. The camera work and music are two things that remain true throughout the three films. The directors will all likely be different. Jesse Low directed "40 Nights" and Bret Miller directed "Chasing the Star" and "The Christ Slayer" is TBD.

    BFB: (Was he (Jesse) someone you brought in once the wheels were in motion, or was he there from the earliest stage, did it have to be him, or was he a choice from a few options.
    I interviewed many directors to find the one who shared my approach for the trilogy. The wheels were in motion first as a Collective Development Inc. development project but once Jesse was brought in we spent weeks going over every scene, line and moment. Once we worked through that process he was given a lot of freedom.

    BFB: Where did the lines lie with artistic vision etc? Were there any choices he wanted to make and you weren't sure but deferred to him?
    If the choice did not affect the "business" I tried to defer to him. The producers and our director (Jesse) as a team worked through casting, crew, locations and such. Once I've signed off on the script I like to direct all creative questions towards the director. I also try to protect the subjective and creative "lines" making the choices of our director Larry weight once he is in motion. A few words and phrases, scenes changed and Jesse's visual stylistic choices are all over the film. Jesse Aragon our director of photography also worked great with our overall vision.

    BFB: The experience of going without food and water felt very much more real in your film than the other Jesus films. Is this something that you and the team have much experience of (method-acting? or as part of your faith?)
    I am very method in my approach to acting. That said, I did not truly fast while filming but being in the Yuma desert gives you that real stimulus. I did find myself NOT drinking as often on set to create that thirst in your eyes. I really did travel that harsh place in robe and sandals bleeding daily to get our scenes. This is a good place to bring up one funny question. People have said, I thought Jesus's robe would be longer. I'm sure Jesus has short, medium and long robes and a heavy goat coat for when it was cold. When you ACTUALLY walk through the desert your robe hikes up and anything past the knees will trip you up. You would be tearing the robe off at a certain point to allow free travel. I think that is the result of too many Jesus actors walking around on sets versus in the actual harsh desert. So functional is the word when it comes to robes in the wilderness.

    BFB: 40 days is the first of three films, so what made you decide to do it that way?
    I wanted to participate in some long format story telling with is why Netflix, Amazon, Hulu opening studios is exciting because I think TV series might be in our future. I was also greatly inspired by the Star Wars original trilogy. I love the look and the dramatic impact of the characters. That can be seen in our films. So if you want to see biblical stories told with a Star Wars twist take a watch. You can see the influence in there I'm sure.

    BFB: Which parts of the story are you going to cover in the next two films?
    The next film now in editing is "Chasing the Star" and is about the quest of the magi seeking the newborn Jesus. All three films share topics of sacrifice and the personal quest within them. The last installment entitled "The Christ Slayer," is a beautiful story that combines two events from the bible into a deep and moving conclusion to our trilogy. We're talking with directors and a few actors - many who are seeking us out upon hearing what we're doing.

    BFB: The film everyone will want to compare this with is Ewan McGregor's "Last Days in the Desert". Have you seen it? If so what did you think/If not do you plan to? (I haven't yet). Do you think it helps your film or might reduce your audience? Did Ewan call up for tips?

    I have heard about but I've not seen Ewan McGregor's film. I will likely watch it on Netflix or such when it comes to TV. I think it can only help and I believe the films to be different. As I understand it - their story fictionalizes a side story as Jesus is leaving the desert. I would love to have a beer with Ewan and talk about our shared experiences playing Jesus. Call me Ewan:)

    BFB: Anything else to add?
    I'm proud of the people who worked so hard on this film and hope it will be around for many years. I hope people take away a better understanding of the man and are inspired to be better people overall. I think the film has something for everyone and it doesn't require you to be a Christian to get the message. It challenges us to be better. I will accept that challenge.

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    Wednesday, May 11, 2016

    Ben Hur (1925) with Live Orchestra Comes to Birmingham

    In addition to watching and writing a lot about Bible films, I'm also a big fan of silent movies, so when the two come together I'm always pretty interested. And when the two come together for one night only, with a live symphony orchestra it's like your birthday has come early. Unless it actually is your birthday. I which case you get to take your family along for the ride too.

    The event is happening at Birmingham's Symphony Hall this Friday, 13th May. There's a good range seat prices and younger viewers are only £5 a piece.

    I've not seen this, 1925, version of Ben Hur in it's entirety since the very early days of this blog in 2006. You can read my thoughts on it here, and a more detailed review of it from Movies Silently.

    Incidentally, fans of the various incarnations of Ben Hur might be interested in Barbara Ryan and Milette Shamir's book "Bigger than Ben Hur: The Book, Its Adaptations, and Their Audiences" which I will be reviewing shortly.

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