• 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 22, 2017

    Birdsong vs the Biblical Epic

    Two years after The Nativity Story and Spanish/Catalan director Albert Serra produced El cant dels ocells (Birdsong). In contrast to The Nativity Story which sought to position itself as a new, family friendly take on the epic in the hope of reproducing the success of The Passion of the Christ, Birdsong deliberately took almost the opposite approach. Just as Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo opposed 50s and 60s Biblical Epics such as King of Kings, so Birdsong can be seen as an antidote to the excesses of The Passion. Rather than the cast of thousands Birdsong  had a cast of just six. Instead of excessive, lavish sets the film is nearly all filmed outside on deserted landscapes. There are no moral victories, promises of sex, or analogies between the past and the future, indeed the line between the two is somewhat blurred. Birdsong is essentially an anti-epic.

    This 'anti-epic' style is typical of Serra's broader body of work, "a cinema of gentle observation and slow demeanour, in which eccentric characters incarnated by non-professional actors bring new dimensions to well-known fictional and religious archetypes". (Delgado 2013: 12) Two years earlier he had produced a similarly sparse version of the Don Quixote story Honor de Cavelleria (2006) and his 2013 film Història de la meva mort (Story of my Death) similarly drained the stories of Cassanova and Dracula of their melodramatic excesses.

    Serra's work is just one example of "a new kind of cinema that exists on the margins of the Spanish film industry, to question its premises." (Javier 2014: 95-96) Javier suggests that films such as this "create images that seem to resist the recent explosion of our current 'multi-screen' reality. As opposed to the 'excess image' dominating screens in the contemporary world, this cinema opts wholeheartedly for simplicity and restraint". (2014: 96) Nowhere does this movement contrast more greatly that with the excess of the Biblical Epic.

    The most obvious indicator of this is Serra's long, static takes, reminiscent of the style of Roberto Rossellini's later films. Rossellini held that by minimising artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, not only created more genuine films, but it also reminds the viewer that what they are watching is just a reconstruction, not the real thing. Such long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack make the viewing the film not unlike that of viewing paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with great meaning from very little.

    Instead of putting the film in context and recounting all the events surrounding Jesus' birth, or even just covering the complete story of the magi's journey, Serra "reduces the symbolic journey of the Three Wise Men to the characters' simple wanderings through stark mountainous areas or across wide open plains where they are mere blots on the landscape and, on many occasions, actually disappear from view". (Javier 2014: 97). Such a portrayal of these "solitary wanderings undermine narrative momentum, inviting the viewer to contemplate, in silent long takes, images of the empty landscape he traverses" (De Luca 2012: 194). The "temporal elongation of the shot surpasses by far the demands of the story". (2013: 193)

    Indeed, so low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment can almost creep up on the viewer without them really noticing. When the kings finally find the Christ child there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. This is s a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters. Serra produces "a moment of pure reverence, highlighted by the film's only instance of non-diegetic music, when the three men finally prostrate themselves before the mother and child, and the family's private life takes on monumental significance." (O'Brien 2011: 109-110)

    It is this moment that most captures "the tradition of Dreyer, Rossellini [and] Pasolini" as the director intended. (Hughes) It's an understated moment that rather than relying on pomp, ceremony, a powerful soundtrack and over-wrought acting performances is built on the slow realism of al that has gone before it. It not only brings to mind the climaxes of Dreyer's Ordet (The Word, 1955), Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) and the moment when Christ is removed from the cross in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), but extends the tradition.

    Part of the reason this strategy is successful is the way it humanises the three kings, going further than even Pasolini dared. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They even bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. Yet despite this, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage, yet somehow the characters are very engaging.

    Serra also sees something "absurd" in the characters' mission.
    All of the ideology, what Jesus means, we added later. We’re talking about the pioneers. Just three men who probably feel stupid, you know? They don’t know why they are going to see this child, or where they’re going, or how long it will take. They’re following a star to find a small child in order to adore him. (Hughes 2009)
    This forms an interesting contrast with the approach in The Nativity Story. Both films seek to inject humour by portraying three men who have come to be known as wise, acting like ordinary people. Yet in Birdsong this is done without revealing a great deal about who these men are or stripping away the mystery; in contrast, in The Nativity Story, everything is explained, the characters are given names, backstories and motivations, yet both the humour and the attempt to draw parallels between us and them falls flat.

    Just two years, then, after New Line had produced the first Nativity epic, this film becomes the first Nativity 'anti-epic'. A tendency that would be repeated twice more in the following decade in Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010) and Le Fils de Joseph (Son of Joseph, 2016).

    Delgado, Maria. M. (2013), 'Introduction', in M. M. Delgado and R. W. Fiddian (eds.), Spanish Cinema 1973-2000: Auteurism, Politics, Landscape and Memory, 1-20, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    De Luca, Tiago. (2012), 'Realism of the Senses: A Tendency in Contemporary World Cinema' in Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam, Rajinder Dudrah (eds.) Theorizing World Cinema,183-206, London: I.B Tauris.

    Hughes, Darren (2009), 'Albert Serra Interviewed on El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong)', Senses of Cinema. Available online: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/albert-serra-interview/(accessed 22/4/2017).

    Moral, Javier. (2014), 'Behind the Enigma Construct: A Certain Trend in Spanish Cinema' in Duncan Wheeler, Fernando Canet (eds.), (Re)viewing Creative, Critical and Commercial Practices in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, 93-104, Bristol: Intellect Books.

    O'Brien, Catherine. (2011), The Celluloid Madonna: from Scripture to Screen. London, U.K. : Wallflower Press.

    O'Brien, Catherine (2016) 'Women in the Cinematic Gospels'. In: Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, (ed.) The Bible in Motion : a Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, vol. 2, 449-462, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

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    Wednesday, April 19, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 4 - John's Gospel

    This is the last in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Mark's Gospel and so today we end with the Gospel of John.

    As is well known, John's Gospel is significantly different from the other three "synoptic" gospels. Whilst the resurrection scenes are not an exception we do see something interesting in how John essentially takes the basic plot structure from the other three gospels and expands it with the writer's own ideas as well as adding on a significant chunk of new material towards the end. This is essentially a microcosm of what John does with the Synoptic text as a whole. (I realise that some dispute whether John was even familiar with any of the synoptics).

    What we have in John's gospel is Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, finding it empty, running to tell the apostles, who run back to the tomb and find it empty. When they leave she comes face to face with Jesus, although initially she mistakes him for someone else. That evening Jesus appears to the disciples. John then adds a 2nd appearance eight days later, this time where the "doubting" disciple is present. Then we get a later incident, sometimes called an appendix or the epilogue where Jesus appears on a beach and cooks the disciples fish for breakfast before rehabilitating Simon Peter. One of the reasons this second chapter (21) is sometimes called an epilogue or appendix is because the text seems to have come to a close at 20:31, but then starts up again.

    Overall these incidents are not that well represented in film, indeed when thinking about them the main two that spring to mind are the two word for word adaptations, one from the Visual Bible in 2003 and 2015's version from the Lumo Project. That said two versions of the appearance to Mary Magdalene - the episode from John's resurrection scenes that gets the most coverage in Jesus film - are worth a brief mention.

    Brief Mentions
    The first is in The Miracle Maker (2000) which as I alluded to yesterday gives better coverage to the events of the resurrection than practically any other film. Here we get a nice point-of-view shot as Mary first sees the risen Jesus, partially accounting for her failing to recognise him.

    Also mentioned yesterday was the BBC's The Passion (2008). As with the Road to Emmaus scene in Luke's Gospel where Jesus isn't recognised by seemingly close friends, the film uses a different actor to portray Jesus as he meets Mary.

    The Lumo Project's Gospel of John (2015)
    So how do the word for word translations do? Some of the Lumo Project's Gospel of John of the resurrection  are available on YouTube. The Magdalene, Thomas and Simon Peter scenes are obviously filmed specifically for this instalment but there's quite a bit of footage that is recycled in the other films. Part of the disappointment with this version is that it doesn't really do anything particularly interesting with what it has available and conversely part of the disappointment is that, again, some of the nudges in the text are ignored. I suspect it's the practicalities of trying to create re-useable footage, more than a desire to minimise the distinctives of each gospel that is the driving consideration here, but the result is much the same.

    The Visual Bible' Gospel of John (2003)
    In contrast I find the Visual Bible' Gospel of John more moving and it uses a couple of nice filmic techniques to good effect. It actually spends fifteen minutes on these two chapters, not quite as long as The Passion, but still one of the longest treatments.

    The first thing that really stands out here is that Magalene's case of mistaken identity is because Jesus is rather oddly crouched down behind a plant. This seems a little bit odd (what was he doing at that moment? Had he got distracted from his important business of making his debut post-resurrection appearance by a stray weed or something?), but is one way to deal with a somewhat odd bit of the story.

    What really stands out about this film's resurrection sequence - memorable to me even before I watched it, is the very end of the film. As Jesus' conversation with Peter draws to a close, the group of them are walking along the beach. Peter gestures towards the disciple that Jesus loved and asks "What about this man?". Jesus replies "If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you". The "other" disciple is standing behind the two of them but compositionally he is in the middle of the frame between Jesus and Peter. Once Jesus has spoken the line he an Peter walk past the camera (which is tracking back very slowly) such that the other disciple is left alone in the middle of the frame and gradually moves closer to the camera looking more than a little taken aback. Then the footage freezes, the image turns sepia and then merges into a sketch -type version of the image (pictured above). At the same time, the music to the film - which I find to be one of it's strong points - swells in a particularly moving way. The freeze frame/sepia-ing/distorting of this image really conveys the passing of time and the sense that the live action we have been witnessing passed into history. It's my favourite moment in the entire film, poignantly placing an emphasis on what happened to these followers, and the church who followed in their wake, after the story we have seen has been completed. And when it comes to the resurrection, perhaps that is the most significant thing.

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    Tuesday, April 18, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 3 - Luke's Gospel

    This is the third in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Mark's Gospel and so today it's onto Luke.

    There are three Jesus films that strike me as reflecting something of the ending to Luke's Gospel. Firstly there is the recent Lumo Project version The Gospel of Luke (2016). A few of the relevant scenes from this film can be viewed online. This time the narrator is Richard E. Grant, but it's obvious that much of the footage - at least of the initial resurrection is that we find in their version of Mark (and indeed John).

    As I say in my review of Mark there's an interesting tension in this between reflecting the distinct portrait of these events that Mark provides and the purported historical events that stand behind them. But one of the disadvantages of this approach is the footage doesn't always act out clear stage directions from the text, so here there are no men in dazzling clothes and no-one puts their face to the ground.

    The Road to Emmaus scene is new though and as with other films has Jesus half covering his face to explain why Cleopas and his companion don't recognise him. This seems to me to be a rather odd approach. If Jesus meant to conceal his identity surely he could have done it more effectively: If he meant to be visible then why not make it more plain and uncover his face?  This halfway house just makes it seem like a key test of faith is the ability to recognise faces in bad light.

    The second film to mention when talking about Luke's resurrection is the Genesis Project's extended version of Luke's Gospel, from which the Jesus film (1979) was edited. This also employs the partial face covering tactic on the Road to Emmaus (pictured), but does present the other aspects more or less as directed. I don't really like the soft focus in the upper room scene though.

    Lastly, as films go, I tend to think The Miracle Maker (2000), whilst a harmonised Jesus film is a fairly Lucan take on proceedings. That said after the resurrection the script seems to switch to John as the primary source, such that there are a further 3 episodes not found in Luke. However, the shape of the narrative at this point remains Lucan with the discovery by women, Simon seeing Jesus (24:34), the appearance on the Road to Emmaus, and then just a single appearance to the disciples in the upper room. The Johanine inclusions are more flourishes within that broader narrative than the text that defines the text of the narrative.

    For whatever reason very few films feature the Road to Emmaus episode, although this has increased in recent years, but this is certainly the first film I think of when this episode comes to mind. Again we get the same tactic with face-covering. The one portrayal of this scene that does something different is the BBC's The Passion (2008) which uses a different actor in various parts of the resurrection episode - certainly a more interesting, and not necessarily a more controversial, way t solve the question of why Jesus was not recognised.

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    Last Days of Jesus (2017)

    Screened on Channel 5 on Good Friday (having premiered on PBS on April 4th) this is the latest 'controversial' documentary promising to tell us something new. And it did. As seasoned as I am in these things, I must admit that I had not previously known a great deal about the head of the praetorian guard around the time Jesus was ministering, Lucius Aelius Sejanus; nor about Manaen the Herod Antipas's courtier/foster brother who is mentioned as a leader in the early church in Acts 13; nor about the reason why Herod took a shine to his brother's wife; nor even, for that matter, the times of year when palm fronds are/were available in Jerusalem. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure I even knew what a "frond" was before watching this.

    The challenge for the viewer in all these situations is to both pick up new information, but maintain a healthy scepticism about what is being presented. This documentary is certainly no exception, leaning heavily, as it does, on the work of Simcha Jacobovici. Jacobovici was the driving force behind 2007's documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus and whilst someone else's voice is used to present the UK version of the documentary, Jacobovici is listed as an executive producer, is perhaps the most prominent of the talking heads and, based on the way he addresses the camera, may have actually presented the programme in the US cut of the film. The theories here are a little less out there than they were in The Lost Tomb of Jesus, but they're still essentially minority positions which have seemingly found a platform primarily because of their ability to gain interest (and therefore an audience and sponsors) rather than primarily because of the veracity of their new theories.

    The central thesis here is that Jesus was under the control of Herod Antipas and perhaps also Pontius Pilate as the more acceptable face of religious reformation (compared to John the Baptist). Herod was attempting to curry favour with Sejanus, such that when Jesus was arrested around the time of Sejanus's downfall he was left politically impotent for a while. Sejanus's downfall and the resulting temporary impotence of Herod and Pilate gave Caiaphas and Annas the balance of power for a few short months. The high priest used this temporary cessation to get Jesus, who threatened his power, executed.

    This is all very well, but it does appear to leave the whole theory balancing on the supposed seasonal lack of availability of palm fronds and very passing mentions of people connected with Herod in the writings of Luke. Suffice to say I don't think they can bear the weight of the argument.

    The filmmakers claim that the only time the palm fronds were available to wave around was in the autumn, not the spring so that the events depicted as occurring in Holy "Week" may have lasted for as long as six months. This isn't a particularly radical revision in itself, there is almost certainly some aspects of the Holy Week narratives where the symbolism became more important than the cold hard facts. The filmmakers assert that it's in the week (failing to recall the axiom about a week being a long time in politics), but there's no reason why it couldn't be either the presence of the fronds, or the timing being around Passover that were imported to give the story extra theological power. If the filmmakers want to question some of these things, fine. But they look at a picture that doesn't, to them, appear to quite piece together and then seem to hone in on one particular detail without justifying that is. Then they use that to make a massive supposition - that Jesus's demise was linked to Sejanus'. But again, it's clear that Jesus was just one of a number of religious/political reformers. What's remarkable about him isn't the number of his followers, but what they said happened after he was executed.

    But the link to Sejanus is weak anyway. It's assumed that the money that Joanna the wife of Chuza (Herod's chief of staff, we are told) was politically tied. This again is an unsupported assertion. It's not impossible, but it does assume that Joanna was acting under her husband's orders rather than her own discretion and that Jesus was susceptible to this kind of bribe. Furthermore, the fact that only Luke mentions her raises further questions. Mark is the oldest gospel why did he not mention her impact if it was so important? Joanna may have been Luke's source for what went on in Herod's court hence why only he includes the trial before Herod, but this suggests the link with Herod was hardly as pivotal as the filmmakers would have us believe (or else Mark would have included it). It seems at least as likely that Luke is doing as Luke often does and bringing in people around the margins of the story - particularly women (such as Joanna) and non-Jews (such as Antipas).

    And then there's Manaen/Manahen who turns up in Acts 13. Whilst the link with Herod is potentially significant these events are at least as late as 44AD (after the death of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12). This is a big window of time. Large enough, certainly, for the Christian movement to reach and convince at least one prominent courtier to join them, but also probably too large for a Herodian spy to be still bothering to infiltrate the movement of a failed political reformer. The presence of Manaen's name seems unlikely to bolster a claim that Jesus was Herod's man.

    Whilst the theories of the documentary do rather tail off as its thesis becomes more apparent, Last Days is well made with the usual mix of talking heads, dramatic re-enactments, motion stills of ancient-looking texts and location shooting. The pacing is good and the arguments, for all their faults, are well laid out. Certainly this is well above average for Channel 5, even if their penchant for complicated conspiracy theories over more straightforward explanations ultimately lets them down.


    Monday, April 17, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 2 - Mark's Gospel

    This is the second in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Matthew's Gospel and so today it's onto Mark.

    As I mentioned in my recent review of the Lumo Project's The Gospel of Mark
    The agreed upon text of Mark appears to comes up short at chapter 16 verse 8 (before any sightings of the risen Jesus) and all we're left with is a series of fragments where others have sought to create a new ending. It's a scenario that suggested a series of interesting possibilities cinematically...
    Sadly no film has really sought to end their film in quite this way. As I noted in that review, rather than ending the film at Mark 16:8, or even dramatising the different alternate endings (but in a way that is notably different from the rest of the film) we simply get the most popular of the alternate endings presented in the same way as the rest of the film. Whilst it would obviously be too much to ask to see a Wayne's World style ending, perhaps the use of a different narrators voice, or a different actor playing Jesus might have been interesting.

    Lumo's version of verses 16:1-8 (which you can view online) does follow the text of these eight verses fairly closely. There's a group of four women rather than three but they arrive at a tomb that is already open and go inside. They don't however meet a young man dressed in white, even if there is a hint that a white glowing object is present in the tomb. Then they run away from the tomb and the scene ends.

    The absence of the young man dressed in white is a bit of shame. Those seeking to harmionise the gospels naturally assume he is an angel as we find in Matthew, but that is not actually what Mark's text says, and it's important to remember that Matthew was using Mark as his major source. Both Matthew and Luke tweak Mark's original wording, though in different directions. Incidentally, there have been some attempts to link the young man in the tomb with the other anonymous young man from Gethsemane who is sometimes known as the Naked Fugitive. (He is also absent from the relevant shot in the Lumo Project). Partly it's because these are the only two times that this particular NT Greek word for young man (νεανίσκος) is used in Mark and partly because of further references to a young man in an apocryphal text called the Secret Gospel of Mark. I must admit I find all this idle speculation interesting, but ultimately not very useful and highly tenuous. There's very little to suggest Secret Mark is any kind of credible source. But I digress.

    A key question here is what are the options for the ending of Mark? Broadly speaking there are three. The first is that one of the endings we have was actually the original. One response to my Gospel of Mark review was from James Snapp who has argued elsewhere that the textual issues with the main "alternate" with Mark are overstated. I must confess not to be an expert, but note that even the majority of evangelical scholars concede that differences in style/vocab and the absence of this missing piece in some manuscripts is a little problematic. If Snapp is correct however then the Lumo project's ending is practically.

    The second option is that the real original ending was somehow lost. Some have suggested that it was probably a key component of the endings we find in Matthew and Luke, perhaps the material that is common to both. From a filmic point of view this is rather unsatisfying. The text cannot be re-created. Even if we could determine that this was actually what happened we don't know if it was burnt by fire, eaten by worms or deliberately suppressed. One could try to recreate it from the endings of Matthew/Luke but even this would be highly speculative. Mark's distinct voice would be lost and any attempt to recreate it would probably reflect the new author's agenda and perspectives more than Mark's.

    The third option however is potentially more fruitful. This is the theory that, for whatever reason, Mark intended the gospel to end at verse 8. This was perhaps controversial which is why Matthew and Luke added their own as did the unknown writers who sought to provide a climax that was (according to them) more fitting. But perhaps Mark intended his gospel to end on a question mark, something more mysterious, unknown and open-ended.

    The only film that really fits in to this perspective is Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975). Here we get a group of around 8-10 people heading to Jesus' tomb on the Sunday morning. The group is a mixture of men and women (again at least four), but as they approach they are met first by two soldiers running the other way and then by another woman (seemingly Mary Magdalene). This prompts Mary the mother of Jesus to run on ahead. She climbs up to the tomb and on finding it empty falls to her knees and worships (as pictured above), with the rest of the group on the ground below.

    Whilst this fits the details of verses 16:1-8 no better (there is still no young man, and Magdalene is not mentioned as reaching the tomb before Jesus' mother in Mark) it does seem, to me, that it accords better with the possibility that Mark intended his gospel to end at this point. As I noted in my review a few years ago this is typical of Rossellini's strategy in his history films:
    Jesus has gone, and Mary kneels in worship, but the conclusion is far from solid and there are no appearances of the risen Messiah... It is not denying the miraculous necessarily, but almost placing the viewer in the moment of its occurrence, almost unable to tell yet that something miraculous has happened. Only on reflection do we work out what has happened.

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    Cleopatra (1934) and What it Says about DeMille

    Whilst Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (1934) may not quite be a biblical film it's worth of a few words of consideration here not only because it features at least one biblical character (Herod the Great), but also because it's one DeMille's string of ancient world films with at least connotations of the biblical epic and it's really rather revealing.

    The biblical links, such as they are pretty much come down to a brief cameo by Herod the Great in the second half of the film. The first half looks at Cleopatra's relationship with Julius Caesar and is brought to a halt by his murder at the senate. There are a couple of shots here that look like they may have influenced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), miost notably the ones where Brando's Mark Antony address the crowd. (Though it's possible they both depend on an independent source such as a painting).

    Antony (long-time DeMille collaborator Henry Wilcoxon) arrives in Egypt and is quickly met by Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) who pulls out all the stops to try and impress him. It's not quite an orgy scene as per Sign of the Cross (1932), but it fulfils more or less the same function. More of that later. Whatever her methods Cleopatra manages to ensnare Mark Antony which begins to become a problem in Rome as Octavian accrues more power and then Herod arrives. It's perhaps hardly surprising. This was a rare romantic leading role for Wilcoxon whereas Colbert was, by then a big star.
    After The Sign of the Cross and her Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (Columbia, 1934), Claudette Colbert was considered ideal for the role of CLeopatra, and no-one else was seriously considered. But the glorified ingenue of two years before was now a bona fide superstar, and Colbert's new status would create problems on the set during production. (Birchard 2004: 277)
    We know from Josephus that Herod's not only knew Antony, but also had to utilise his political manoeuvring skills to the best of his ability during his benefactor's demise. DeMille condenses this into just a few short scenes. Herod arrives as the guest of Cleopatra (with whom he shared the rights to extracting asphalt from the Dead Sea) and immediately passes on a message from Rome that she ought to consider poisoning her lover. Cleopatra is appalled. It's a surprise, then, when Herod appears in the next scene with Mark Antony and tells him the whole thing. On the surface he is offering reassurance that Cleopatra would never dream of such a thing, but of course he's attempting to sow seeds of doubt in their relationship. It's notable that Cleopatra is marginally less horrified when one of her courtiers suggests shortly afterwards that it would probably be best for the nation if she did as Octavian asked.

    Of course none of this is in the Bible - happening thirty years before Jesus' death, but it's not inconsistent of the man who seems so desperate to cling onto power that Matthew portrays him as murdering the infants of an entire village in order to eliminate threats to his throne. Interestingly Herod does not feature in either the Theda Bara/William Fox's silent Cleopatra (1917) which was difficult to come by even in DeMille's day (Birchard 2004: 277) or the 1963 Liz Taylor and Richard Burton version (which proved to be one of the death knells of the epic genre in general. DeMille's film was a big success).

    For DeMille fans however there's a great deal of interest here, particularly in that not-quite-an-orgy scene. As Lindsay says, "no-one did an orgy like DeMille" (2015: 75). When Mark Antony arrives Cleopatra welcomes him aboard her boat. There then begins a series of seductions, starting with a half-hearted solo effort. When this fails to improve his mood she coyly confesses that she is dressed "to lure you in" and resorts to a more ego stroking "of course you're too clever to fall for all this routine".

    To show her supposed naivety she outlines her "plan" and shows him all that she had lined up including half naked women writhing around on top of an ox. Then a giant net is hauled upon her ship supposedly containing clams, but actually including more semi-clad women bearing clams full of jewels and when Cleopatra, and then Antony, start flinging the jewels around scantily clad servants of both sexes roll around on the floor to get hold of them. Shortly afterwards women dressed as leopards from the waist up appear, roll around on top of one another and start to cartwheel thorough flaming hoops.

    All of this is done in a knowing 'this wouldn't possibly work on a soldier such as you' type of way, perhaps best summed up by the conversation between the two of them:
    Mark Antony: I hope that you know that I know you want me to do this.
    Cleoptra: Dear Antony, I hope you think I know that you know I know
    (they giggle together)
    What's interesting about this knowing scene is that what Cleopatra is seeking to do to Mark Antony mirror what DeMille is trying to do to his audience, namely titillate them whilst giving lip service to their supposed immovability to such tacky, seductive fare.

    The key difference between this film and others that are usually bracketed alongside of it is the moral message that DeMille usually tacks on. In his biblical films the orgy scenes are usually used as to contrast with the behaviour of the godly. It's a fairly transparent device which has been much commented on - use sex to sell the movie and then tag on a moral message to deflect the criticism. But "if one is paying attention, the sex and sadism in The Ten Commandments is almost unbelievable for a film with such strong Sunday school credentials" (Lindsay 2015: 75)

    What I can't quite decide is if DeMille's work here is less acceptable, because without that redemptive message then really various scenes here are just mild porn; or more acceptable, because at least they're not fundamentally hypocritical.

    You'll have noticed a couple of references above to Richard Lindsay's book "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" which I have just finished reading and so naturally it informed some of my thoughts about DeMille, specifically this film.

    Lindsay argues that scenes such as these were "perhaps reflecting his own predilections" (Lindsay 2015: 38). To his mind both "DeMille and Gibson are 'queer' in the sense that their sexual desires, as revealed on screen, do not conform to traditional notions of sexuality as defined by traditional Christian communities." (2015: xxviii). Whereas most commentators tend to take a cynical view that DeMille was just trying to sell sex and dressing it up Lindsay is convinced "DeMille truly believed in the power of the Ten Commandments and the figure of Moses as a moral force for good..." (2015: 61), but that he was a truly conflicted individual.
    "The camp content of his films has often been interpreted as an expression of the conflict between his Victorian piety and his interest in BDSM...practised with a "harem" of women outside his marriage. The misogyny, sadism, and overwrought melodrama of his epics seems to follow naturally from his own passions...so blatant a part of every DeMille film." (Lindsay 2015: 38)
    For Lindsay, DeMille is perhaps best summed up in the sequence from towards the end of The Ten Commandments where "defining the conflicted impulses of his entire body of work, he cuts between Moses on the Mountain receiving the Law and the sexed-up orgy" (2015: 75)

    I think this film is the most blatant indication of DeMille's desires, not just because of this one scene, but in the way the male gaze is so overwhelming in every scene. As Cleopatra, DeMille has Claudette Colbert (who "was ill during most of the production") dressed in a series of ridiculously over-sexualised and revealing costumes. (Higham 1973: 176-77).The audience is repeatedly encouraged to gaze on Colbert as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony did.

    It's also interesting because, shorn of the biblical element a number of DeMille's auteurist touches become more apparent, the line from Logan's Magdalene, through Colbert's Poppea and Lamarr's Delilah to Baxter's Nefertiri is complete. Each of these glamorous women is frequently photographed in loose but scant flowing costumes, surrounded by supposedly men who lose their power in her presence. We get vast palaces. We get jewels. We get leopards as pets, or servants clad in leopard skin.

    And of course usually we get another "DeMille signature--scenes of naked women in bathtubs". (Lindsay 2015: 9) Yet strangely, despite the fact that sources as far back as Pliny and Cassius Dio have suggested that Cleopatra used to bathe in asses' milk, this is the one thing that DeMille doesn't show here, perhaps because showing Colbert in a milk bath had already got him into hot water.

    Having said all that, I want to end this piece with a nice take on this aspect of DeMille's work from a series of posts on Twitter by Fritzi Kramer (@MoviesSilently) which compares DeMille's supposed shortcomings with his predecessor D.W. Griffith.
    Most people assume that his mixture of faith & sleaze was entirely calculating. His background says otherwise. DeMille is an almost perfect split between his flamboyant actress/agent mother & his bookish lay minister father. He was immersed in theater. But his great treat was when his father (who died young) would read to him from the bible in evenings. DeMille's religious beliefs were not exactly in the mainstream but they were from the heart. The conflict between faith & trash was very real for him. He loved both.

    So when people like Lillian Gish & DW Griffith deliver these snotty little slams indicating that DeMille was a hypocrite, it's annoying. DeMille's faith was genuine but it was in conflict with his adoration of spectacle & frank love of trash. That's what makes him interesting. He approaches religious subjects from a place of knowledge, he just has an off-kilter take. And leopard skin. Oh did he love ladies in leopard. I relate to DeMille because I have similar internal conflicts & I find his way of dealing with his to be fascinating.

    Also, his healthy relationship with his mother is probably responsible for his very woman-centric creative team in the silent era. If you want to see what DeMille could do when he had a mask of anonymity, do check out Chicago. The film is snappy, saucy & spicy. DeMille knew his way around a fast-paced crowd-pleaser. I guess the point of all this is that I wish people would give DeMille the same benefit of the doubt they give other directors. DW Griffith makes rapey films glamorizing the KKK & he gets every excuse under the sun. DeMille likes sexy shoes & the bible. I can tell you which one I would be more comfortable taking an elevator ride with.

    Birchard, Robert S. "Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood". (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
    Higham, Charles "Cecil B. DeMille, an Uncensored Biography". (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973).
    Lindsay, Richard "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015).

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    Sunday, April 16, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 1 - Matthew's Gospel

    For Easter this year I thought I might make a series of short posts looking at each of the Gospels in turn and taking one or maybe two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel.

    Inherent in that is my fascination with the differences between how the various gospels depict the resurrection. Perhaps no incident that is recorded in all four gospels get such different treatment in each and this, combined with the fact that the resurrection is a hard enough thing to understand in the first place, let alone portray means that the resurrection is arguably the least well covered of the major events in Jesus' life.

    Matthew's Gospel has been adapted three times now. The more well known and cinematically revered is Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo and whilst this nicely captures certain aspects of the Gospel, its probably the one place where Pasolini slips from his sole use of Matthew into an approach that incorporates the other gospels a little more. The words are from Matthew, the flying tombstone is not.

    Then there is The Lumo Project's Gospel of Matthew. I've not yet watched this one, but essentially it's acted out footage with the gospel text narrated over the top.

    So I'm going to focus on the Visual Bible's Matthew. Far from the greatest silver screen portrayal of Jesus, but (certainly before the Lump Project's adaptation) the truest to Matthew's literal text. The txt itself is relatively short, just 20 verses compared to 66 for chapter 27 and 75 for chapter 26.

    Here, things are portrayed with the intention of fidelity. The women go to the tomb and find it empty, although we do not actually see the tomb itself. The reason for this is that the dramatic events that the author describes as prefiguring the moment of resurrection are here described rather than shown (with the exception of the earthquake which is portrayed by a shaky camera and a few rocks falling down). This is probably due to the difficulty in portraying credible angels - nearly all attempts at this are distracting - as well as budgetary constraints. It does however also add to the sense that the narrator is using a metaphor rather than offering a literal description. I don't imagine this is intentional, but I'll let you decide for yourselves on the importance of authorial intent.

    We then cut to the women returning from the tomb and meeting Jesus on the road. This is shot from a low angle and Jesus entering the scene from behind the camera. It's a nicely composed moment, which I suppose also catches the sense of not quite being sure who it is we are seeing, at least for a brief moment. It's a shame that it's followed up by a cheesy moment of a slow motion Jesus walking along accompanied by triumphant music. There are no nail marks on Jesus hands though for what it's worth.

    That moment clashes particularly noticeably with the next scene where the Pharisees try to bribe the soldiers. There's no real sense that the soldiers have any fear of the consequences of them failing in their duty. Caiaphas however hides his face in shame, presumably at the deception these faithful Jews are now embroiled in. This is actually a complete contrast with the text which doesn't even mention the Pharisees, and lays the blame with the chief priests and the elders.

    Finally we come to the Great Commission which takes place atop the same rock as the Sermon on the Mount. For a moment it looks like the filmmakers will resist having Jesus look directly in the camera, but then, seemingly unable to help themselves they close with Jesus smiling reassuringly straight at the audience. Artistically it's weak, but it's not hard to appreciate why the filmmakers chose to do it in such a fashion.

    The film ends however with a sort of epilogue: after a long fade to black the camera follows Jesus as he walks towards a lake. He turns for a moment, again looks at the camera and beckons (us) to follow him. He turns on a walks a little further before repeating his "follow me" gesture. The shot freezes mid pose and the credits roll. This ending seems more in keeping with the end of John (21:19's "follow me") than Matthew. Whereas Matthew the gospel gives his audience more of a sending out, here we get Jesus drawing us to himself. Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but then the point of this series is to focus on the little ranges like this that we find.

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