• 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, December 19, 2016

    The Book of Judith (2015)

    I've written several times about films based on the Book of Judith and director Alex Méndez Giner has been kind enough to share with me his 2015 short The Book of Judith (view trailer).

    The film is not an attempt to directly adapt the Book of Judith, nor to create a modernised version of the story or even to depict a 'Judith figure'. Instead it draws on numerous and historical artistic portrayals of Judith's deeds as the texture of a film about the internal thoughts and anxieties of a widowed farmer, in order to penetrate "the complex psychology of Judith’s character and shed light on her personality".1

    The nameless woman, who the film's official description confirms is called Judith, lives on an isolated sheep farm with what we presume are her daughter and mother. Their remote lives are interrupted one day when a rather forthright stranger seeks shelter: it's winter and his car has apparently broken down en route to his mother's funeral. The stranger is not sinister, but the presumptive way in which he appears to invite himself into Judith's house and then decide he is staying for the night leaves her feeling threatened and perhaps a little violated.

    I say "appear", because from very early on in the film the line between reality and fantasy quickly becomes blurred. We witness only snippets of Judith and her guest's initial discussions to the point that it's unclear how he ended up inside her house to begin with let alone being her guest for the evening.

    Méndez Giner's evocative imagery, however, says it all. Images of wolves, sheep with their throats cut, softly lit funeral processions and Judith deep underwater engulf the viewer in images of the threat of an invasive outside force. The precise nature of the threat brought by the stranger is never made explicit, but left for the viewer to infer from the range of Judith's inner thoughts with which we are presented. Unsurprisingly, given the film's title, things culminate with a series of sexually charged images.

    The director's own description of the film refers to over 110 portrayals and the influence of some of the most famous such works, especially the Baroque-era painters Gentileschi, Bigot and Caravaggio are particularly apparent. Notable too are references to other works such as Caravaggio's "Sacrifice of Isaac" and Bill Viola's "Five Angels for the Millennium".

    The result is a beautiful and interesting film which by associating itself with the text only loosely, through symbols rather than plot, allows its audience to explore some of the emotions that Judaism's greatest heroine may have experienced when the might of Holofernes army threatened her and her town. And it demonstrates to us today that, even if the stakes are rarely, if ever, as high for us as they were for her, we can still find a path to less troubled times.

    Image credit - Alex Mendez Giner.
    1 - From Méndez Giner's description of the film which accompanies the trailer - https://vimeo.com/167677004

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    Sunday, December 11, 2016

    (Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat Ng Prinsesang Bayawak)

    Heremias isn't really Bible film. In fact it's not really even a Jeremiah figure film. Nevertheless the unusual choice of name for Lav Diaz's film and its title character invites comparison with the biblical prophet and the book that bears his name, and there are a number of similarities that bear repeating. The book itself is the longest in the bible (by number of words in the original language) and Diaz's film is a sprawling eight and a half hours similarly dense, impenetrable and unwilling to compromise the quality of its vision just for the sake of brevity.

    Heremias is an unassuming, and somewhat solitarian peddler, who travels huge distances on foot with his cow pulling a cart full of goods. He's seemingly the kind of person who's gloomy outlook on life is rarely disappointed. When he splits off from a group of his fellow peddlers, opting for a lone path rather than continue with the group, his soon-to-be-former colleagues warn him of the risks of isolation and attack. Unfortunately it's them rather than him that possess the prophetic insight and when Heremias next finds himself in company he discovers too late that he had entrusted he and his livelihood to thieves and vandals.

    By normal standards these revelations would be classed as the fundamentals of the plot, but it's not until way after three hours that this incident occurs; rather than building up the plot the film's opening period spends us time methodically giving us that sense of isolation and the pace of life in Heremias's world. Diaz chooses ultra-long, often entirely static, takes where often little happens aside from the character and his cart slowly traversing from one side of the screen to the other at what feels like glacial pace. Its austere, real world aesthetics, though, do not necessarily convey impassivity or detachment, indeed shots later on in the film are shown from Heremias' point of view as, taking the law into his own hands, he attempts to track down those who wronged him.

    In what way, then, does Diaz's lead relate to the biblical character? Certainly it's tempting to try and draw allegories from some of the events that are shown. Perhaps the ineffective priest represents the compromised priesthood of Mattaniah's Jerusalem, or the corrupt police symbolic of Jerusalem's morally corroded establishment, but this seems like a stretch to far. Indeed in an interview before filming was complete Diaz stated that:
    "There's no correlation between the historical Jeremias, or even the biblical Jeremia (Jeremiah)...I like the name; that organic feel and process again - you look and search for a name that would appropriate a character you are creating...a lot of people would easily correlate it with a character from the Bible especially in a very Catholic Philippines. But honestly, I never read the Bible."
    That said, given that these comments were made well before the film was completed and, of course, the Bible's deep cultural impact, a certain amount of comparison between the biblical and filmic leads seems acceptable*. After all, like his biblical predecessor Heremias is one who looks closely at the state of his world, shrewdly observing it's short-comings and moral failings. In one, hour-long shot - one that manages to be tense but perhaps a little indulgent - Heremias witnesses four teenage boys drinking, taking drugs, spraying graffiti and generally smashing up the ruined dwelling where he had previously been robbed. On this occasion, as with many others during the film, Heremias's response, at least initially, is one of despair and a feeling of powerlessness, though neither he nor his Old Testament counterpart is easily dissuaded from trying to do the right thing. Heremias cuts a downcast figure and certainly he suffers in a fashion that seemingly questions the inherent morality and fairness of the universe.

    There's an interesting piece on Lav Diaz and this film at The Seventh Art as well of discussion about one of it's best shots here though neither of them really describes the meaning of the film's subtitle: The Legend of The Lizard Princess. This is neither one of those nuclear paranoia era sci-fi films, nor anything to do with Adventuretime, but a reference to one of the Filipino towns that Heremiasreaches. The town has a folk tale about a daughter who was abducted by some hunters because of her beauty who later seemed to return as a protective lizard. It's an odd sub-heading as it feels out of place with the slow, meditative pace of the film, but, as becomes apparent later, it also seems to play a role in some of the film's final scenes as Diaz bring his exploration of morality and our response to it to a fitting climax.

    *Furthermore other reviewers, without the kind of motivation I have to emphasise the links, do so anyway such as this from art-film streaming service Mubi and this from the Dutch film festival IFFR.