• 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, May 27, 2017

    The Young Messiah (2016)

    Back in the first few months that I was writing this blog I wrote two pieces about a potential adaptation of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord". I must admit that in the meantime I've never quite been quite interested enough to read the actual book, but it's certainly pleasing to finally sit down to see a film that you've been following for so long. That said the same could have been said about the Star Wars prequels and look how that turned out.

    In some ways the premise is also not so dissimilar. It takes an iconic character we know well due to their adult life and attempts to fill in the gap. Rice had an advantage over George Lucas in that she also had a few fragments of birth stories to work with, but there's a sense in which the audience's investment in the character is both a help (in selling tickets) and a hindrance (in terms of their heightened expectations).

    Young Messiah, then, starts in Egypt several years after Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the rest of their never-fully-defined wider family have fled from Herod. The family seem to have settled well overall but Jesus is beginning to discover some of the things that make him different in ways that don't necessarily help his family to lead a largely anonymous existence. Plus he's being tracked and taunted by a mysterious Brad Pitt look-a-like who appears to be one part devil, one part 80s heavy-metal guitarist. It's hard to know which aspect is more terrifying.

    The devil manages to incite the crowd against Jesus' family such that, as is often still the case for asylum seekers today, even though they have done nothing wrong they still get blamed and in this case feel they have to leave their home again. Plus Nazareth is calling them home (which sounds a little bit like it might have been the title of one of the Pitt-Devil band's biggest hits). Unfortunately just as the family arrive home Herod's son is beginning to inherit his father's paranoia, such that he's sending out soldiers out to try and track down the youngster who so threatened his father. Clearly he wants to tidy up any such loose ends.

    Such plot, then, means that the story necessarily takes place around the quiet byways and backwaters of first century Galilee, Judea and beyond, rather than in amongst the cities and crowds. This means that whilst the film retains many aspects of the Biblical Epic, its size and scope means that overall it lacks the genre's typically "fantastic excess". (Wood 169) That is not to say that it is entirely devoid of spectacle; in one scene Satan appears to Jesus and shows him a burning Jerusalem and later scenes take place in the temple, amongst impressive sets and a mass of extras. And the film also retains many of the other aesthetic characteristics of the genre such as "the typical locations, characters, and sounds" (Grace 13).

    What is particularly interesting about the film however is the way it maps out a new space within the genre's terrain. Traditionally the Old Testament Epic and the Jesus film have been accompanied by a third type of film - the Roman-Christian Epic - epics which visually and thematically fit within the scope of the Biblical Epic, but whose content is only tangentially biblical. The majority of these films, such as Ben-Hur (1925, 1959, 2016), Quo Vadis? (1913, 1924, 1951, 2001) and The Robe (1953) were based not so much on the Bible itself, but on works of fiction in which either minor biblical characters were given a greatly expanded role, or a major biblical character appeared only fleetingly. They also tended to be set in the time around or after Jesus's death.

    Like these Roman-Christian epics Young Messiah occurs around the fringes of the biblical narratives, however the events it depicts occur in an earlier time period between Jesus' birth and his appearance, aged twelve, in Jerusalem. Like them it is also based on a fictional work, Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt". Like them it also contains a prominent member of the "(e)arthly powers" (Sean Bean's centurion Severus) through whose eyes we witness the events and who eventually comes to faith. (Babington & Evans 202) Yet whilst Severus is Roman, the power figure in this story is not a Roman, but Herod, who describes himself here as "Jewish". And Bean's climatic epiphany is not a conversion to Christianity, but more of a moment of revelation and reflection on his past. Whilst it would clearly count as a moment of divine intervention, it clearly goes even further than the "ecumenical blandness" which Babington & Evans find so typical of the Roman-Christian film. (p.8)

    Essentially, then, this is a fourth type of Biblical Epic, distinct from the Roman-Christian epic by being neither 'Roman' in the fullest sense nor technically 'Christian', (since it had not yet come into existence), even if both undeniably form a critical part of the film's historical backdrop. Furthermore whereas the Roman-Christian Epics relied on a blend of the promise erotic sexual content in the background and romantic love in the foreground here Young Messiah is essentially sexless. Severus is not converted due to his attraction to a Christian woman as in Quo Vadis? but by his encounter with Jesus - something more typical of the Jesus film. And the implication is that the film's leading lady - Mary, Jesus' mother - has remained a virgin even through her married life.

    One key element of the traditional Biblical Epic that is retained is the sense of camp, although the two main camp elements are both more influenced by The Passion of the Christ (Gibson 2004) than the earlier epics. Like Gibson's film Herod is depicted as a camp figure, albeit more subtly than in that film. With his love of soft furnishings, and his court of sycophantic misfits, he flounces barefoot round his throne room treating women with disdain but starring longingly at Sean Bean. In one notable scene he confronts Severus whilst using a female dancer as a proxy for his conflicted feelings about him. Not dissimilarly, the film also depicts Satan as a queer/androgynous figure, though in contrast to Gibson's use of a woman with angular features and a short "masculine" haircut, here Satan is played by a man with long curly blond locks, large dark eyes and soft features.

    Sadly the film's development of the Biblical Epic genre is probably the most interesting thing about it. The holy family's travails from Alexandria to Nazareth to Jerusalem makes little narrative sense yet never really captures the reflection and personal growth aspect of the road movie - a genre it otherwise sits within at least as comfortably as it does the Biblical Epic. Ultimately the plot is driven by Mary and Joseph's unwillingness to tell Jesus the basic facts about his life that apparently everyone else seems to know. A long and dangerous trip takes place simply because the otherwise sympathetic and caring Mary and Joseph can't cope with not being able to give Jesus all the answers. When Mary sits down to tell Jesus about his conception, she starts with the words "Listen well because I'm only going to tell this story once" which will cause most viewers to wonder why an apparently caring mother would refuse to repeat such an important and inspiring story. (I say "most viewers" because those in the UK may be distracted by the presumably unintentional citation from 'Allo 'Allo.)

    Bean's more metaphorical, internal, journey is no more satisfying. Our first encounter with him is as a tough Roman soldier who occasionally spares the life of a child. His ultimate decision not to kill Jesus (I'm assuming anyone reading this already knows that Jesus makes it through to the end of the film) and the revelation he may have acted accordingly in Bethlehem, show that, in fact, he has always been that kind of person.

    It's left, then, to Jesus to bring the film to some sort of vaguely reasonable conclusion and his final voice-over is perhaps the film's most satisfying moment. Trying to work out the reason God has sent him, he concludes "I think I'm here just to be alive. To see it, hear it, feel it, all of it. Even when it hurts. Someday you will tell me why else I'm here. I don't know when, but you will." It's an interesting way to capture some of the critical aspects of the incarnation without getting down into the details. Perhaps this is just "ecumenical blandness" again, but as Mary and Joseph eventually come to realise, sometimes not having a solid answer is OK.

    Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press

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    Sunday, May 21, 2017

    Using Ewan:
    Star Power in Last Days in the Desert

    I finally got to watch 2015's Last Days in the Desert a month or two ago and I've been so pushed for time that I've not been able to properly review it and, given the various other things I need to write about at the moment, and how rarely I actually get to do that, I thought I'd make some brief/informal comments on the most interesting aspect of the film now, and hopefully get to return to review the film properly in a few months time. I'm telling myself that this way I can then concentrate on the more important writing projects, but I'm probably just procrastinating by putting off the next bit of writing for those more important project. But I digress, because, well...I want to talk about Ewan.

    Ewan McGregor is a star. Even if you haven't seen him in Trainspotting, the Star Wars prequels or Moulin Rouge you'll have seen him in something. Indeed at the time of filming he's almost certainly the most famous actor ever to play Jesus on film. Other actors have become famous after they played the role, perhaps even, in the case of Robert Powell, solely because of the role, but at the time the film in question was actually filmed I can't think of anyone else.

    So, clearly, it's time to talk about star theory. The major notion behind star theory is that actors bring with them their previous roles. Filmmakers may use that as shorthand (so we expect Jimmy Stewart to be a good guy in Harvey (1950)because he was a good guy in Mr SMith Goes to Washington); or to set us up for a fall by subverting our expectations (as Hitchcock uses Stewart in Vertigo (1958)), but essentially it recognises that few actors come to us as fresh, that stars always carry a certain amount of baggage with them.

    As McGregor wanders around the desert it's hard not to think of Tattooine and wonder if the devil will appear as a Sand-person. When he sees things that may not really be there, I know it's not heroin, but I'm still reminded of the baby crawling across the ceiling. I never quite expected him to burst into a duet with Nicole Kidman, but wouldn't have been completely surprised if as he was being crucified I heard his internal monologue intone "I chose not to choose life. I chose something else".

    It's difficult therefore to escape this when watching Last Days. In other words, I find McGregor as Jesus distracting. It takes me out of the illusion that I am watching Jesus, and I imagine most people feel the same. In fact, I wonder if, really, this was the point of the film. That it was an exploration not so much of the gospels as an exploration of star power. I think this for two reasons. Firstly, because McGregor is such a massive star that any filmmaker who would be good enough to convince him to take the role would know that they would be unlikely to overcome his back catalogue. I'm reminded of Groucho Marx's line about club membership. Any filmmaker that wanted McGregor to play Jesus would not be a good enough filmmaker to get him to do it.

    The other reason is the specific subject of the film. This is not just a Jesus film, it's one about his time in the desert. Whilst everyone has an opinion on Jesus, that specific section of the gospels is, almost paradoxically, something of a blank canvas.

    Of course, perhaps it's just that McGregor has always really wanted to play Jesus and finally found someone that agreed to let him fulfil his wish. But I don't think so. I think what the film is really about is about how we project onto Jesus our own experiences, opinions and preconceptions. But then I would say that , because it's the point that comes back to me again and again about this subject: it's incredibly hard to escape our own pre-conceptions about who Jesus was and what he was like. Watching a multitude of Bible films is at least one way of challenging the ideas we bring with us.


    The Nativity Story from The Passion to Trump

    It's been over a decade since New Line's attempt to mirror the success of The Passion of the Christ ended in failure. This perhaps ought not to have been a huge surprise. For every TheTen Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959) and there is a GreatestStory Ever Told (1965) or The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) - a film that tried to ride on the coattails of a successful epic, yet failed.

    In the aftermath of the film's failure many sought to discover why the film had been unsuccessful, and many different ideas were proffered. My own theory was that whilst various factors contributed to its disappointing performance, the speed with which the film was produced (less than a year between writer Mike Rich turning in his script and the film debuting in cinemas) didn't allow for sufficient quality control.

    Ten years on, I think that's a valid criticism of the film, and indeed I think that the speed of the production was a key contributor to the problem, but not in that way. Instead the issue was the amount of time that was spent promoting the film to its natural niche audience. As producer Wyck Godfrey said, just a few months after the film's release, Gibson spent six months promoting his film, they only spent one.1

    But whilst the length of time that went into the promoting the film was certainly a factor, not to mention the corresponding amount of effort that it suggest, was a huge factor, I think the failing was not only about how long the respective filmmakers spent marketing their films, but also how it was done.

    The key difference in this respect is the way that Gibson tapped into the sense of persecution that appears to have developed amongst many Christians in America  – something that was surely part of the reason such a large proportion of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. I wrote about this a little in my recent post "How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood", but I'd like to revisit the subject here. In doing so I aim to be briefer overall whilst looking at the perception of persecution in more detail. These two pieces should probably sit alongside one another then, always recognising both that the roots of this issue are complicated and that there are many causes as well as a lot of background noise all of which makes a definitive analysis impossible to find.

    However, at the very least this perception of persecution goes back to the early 1970s. On the one hand books like "The Late, Great Planet Earth" (1970) popularised the kind of theology that anticipated a time of persecution, as a pre-cursor to the second coming.2 At the very least that gives something of an incentive to spotting evidence that the church is being persecuted. And then, of course there was Roe vs Wade and the shock wave that sent out, that sense that traditional Christianity's position of power was under threat.

    Whilst Ronald Reagan's election as president was initially greeted as a victory for the religious right disappointment at the community's perceived marginalisation under Reagan grew, such that by 1988 "traditional" Christianity was seen as losing ground to liberalism. And then in Hollywood - one of the main centres of the growth of liberalism - Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. This was perhaps the leading conflicts in the culture wars of the late twentieth century and this isn't the place to get into the rights and wrongs of that particular film. However I do remember reviewing Thomas Lindlof's book "HollywoodUnder Siege" (about the controversy surrounding the release of Last Temptation of Christ) years later and being struck by the fact that the only people to make any money from the film were those Christian lobbyists who had run successful fundraising campaigns off the back of their opposition to the film's release.3 The perception that the religious right is under attack from liberalism has only grown since then such that in 2004 the scene was right for Mel Gibson.

    Gibson's approach typically involved a number of key aspects (again see my previous article). Firstly he claimed that he had been trying to make his Jesus film for years but none of the major studios would have it. I've no evidence to support or disprove that claim because as far as I know it's never been challenged. I'd sure like to see some though. Part of the reason it's not been challenged is because no-one is surprised that big popularist studios were not interested in an ultra-violent Jesus film in two dead languages based on the anti-Semitic visions of a nun.

    But the way Gibson told it was rather different. There was no calm of acceptance of what was in all likelihood a business decision. No, this was a tale of persecution; a tale of a Hollywood elite treating traditional Christians unfairly.

    Another aspect in Gibson's story regarding the film was the various intimations that God was in favour of it. The stories of miracles and conversions, of the "Holy Ghost directing traffic", the leaked 'papal' summary "It is as it was" and the repeated claim that he wanted to really show it as it was.4 In contrast to films such as Last Temptation his would "show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened...like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred...I'm telling the story as the Bible tells it".5

    In other words - whether intentionally or just naturally, he painted himself as a warrior in the culture wars standing up for God against liberalism. In so doing he made supporting his film a sign of faithfulness. Let's show Hollywood there's an audience for faithful depictions of the Bible, (even if, as it turned out, the results were not necessarily as faithful as might have been claimed). Lindsay describes this as a process of "scripturalization" that occurs through four stages of "directorial inspiration, ecclesiastical endorsement, experiences of spiritual transcendence, traditions of viewing and devotion".6

    In trying to market their film the makers of The Nativity Story attempted to reproduce The Passion of the Christ's strategy of attempting to court church leaders in order to gain their endorsement for their film. Just as Gibson talked to church leaders in order to secure support for The Passion, so writer Mike Rich, director Catherine Hardwick and producer Wyck Godfrey did the same. In fact they even made explicit links to Gibson's film to do so. Prior to the movie's release, Rich spoke of how he "was really inspired by the scene where Jesus falls while carrying the cross and Mary has a flashback to Jesus as a small child in danger".7 Rich even stressed explicit links with Gibson's epic such as the fact that parts of both films were shot in Matera, Italy, as well as the fact that they were loaned "the big olive tree...from the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane".8 Similarly the film's historical advisor, William Fulco, also drew links between the two films pointing out how "this film could not have been possible without The Passion."9

    The film's marketing team also commissioned prominent Roman Catholic film specialist Sister Rose Pacette to write a study guide for the film as well as edit another book collating eleven essays on the film and there were numerous special screenings for church representatives.10 The film's creators even arranged for it to premiere at the Vatican, Making it the first feature to do so.11

    Yet merely drawing the links between The Nativity Story and The Passion, and gaining acknowledgement of its worthiness was not sufficient. Whilst the film was seen as "authentic" and "faithful" the producers didn't create a similarly compelling narrative 12 Some church leaders did try to tell their followers that this was "an opportunity to get behind" a "family-friendly" film "as a way of telling Hollywood that's what audiences want".13 Whilst sending messages about the kind of film Christians wanted to see (even if they admitted it wasn't a great work of art) was something of a cause, it was nothing like as compelling as Gibson's. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs the fear of persecution, or even expressing support of an associate who is being persecuted significantly outranks entertainment preferences.

    As mentioned above the far shorter amount of time spent both creating relationships with church leaders and building a sense of anticipation about the film's release was also critical factor, as was the fact that Hardwicke and Godfrey lack Gibson's star power, but what The Nativity Story really lacked was a compelling story of how watching their film was a show of defiance and support for their community in the face of a supposedly unsympathetic, if not malevolent, behemoth like Hollywood.

    1 - Moring, Mark. "Nativity Comes Home" Christianity Today. 20 March 2007 -  (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/nativitystorydvd.html) cited at Queen Spoo - http://nativitymovie.blogspot.co.uk/)
    2 - Lindsay, Hal. "The Late Great Planet Earth" Zondervan (1970)
    3 - Lindlof, Thomas R. (2008) Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p.283-4.
    4 - More detailed sources for these quotes can be found in my post here - http://biblefilms.blogspot.co.uk/2005/11/film-new-passion.html
    5 - Zenit Staff - Zenit - "Mel Gibson’s Great Passion" - https://zenit.org/articles/mel-gibson-s-great-passion/ - March 6, 2003
    6 - Lindsay, Richard "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015). p.8
    7 - Pacette, Rose "The Nativity Story: Contemplating Mary's Journey of Faith" Boston: Pauline Books & Media 2006. p.5-6
    8 - Pacette, Rose (ed.) "The Nativity Story: A Film Study Guide for Catholics" Boston: Pauline Books & Media 2006. p.6
    9 - Patterson, Hannah - "The greatest teen drama ever told" The Guardian, 1 December 2006 - https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/dec/01/2
    10 - Namely the two referenced in 7 & 8 above.
    11 - Moore, Carrie A. "The Nativity Story - Vatican premiere spotlights a new marketing tool" Desert News, Nov. 25, 2006 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650209537/The-Nativity-Story--Vatican-premiere-spotlights-a-new-marketing-tool.html?pg=all
    12 - See, for example the debate between Christian film critics here - http://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/2007/02/the-nativity-story.aspx
    13 - Moore, Carrie A. "The Nativity Story - Vatican premiere spotlights a new marketing tool" Desert News, Nov. 25, 2006 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650209537/The-Nativity-Story--Vatican-premiere-spotlights-a-new-marketing-tool.html?pg=all

    Wednesday, May 10, 2017

    Maestà, La Passion du Christ (2015)

    How should I describe Guérif's Maestà? It's a biblical film, certainly, but quite unlike any I have seen before. In fact quite unlike any film I have seen before. Indeed, even in writing that I wondered whether it is really a film or twenty-eight different shorts, as people sometimes ask whether the Bible itself is one book or a collection of books.

    From a distance Andy Guérif's film appears to be one single take of the main section of the back of Maestà of Duccio - an elaborate altarpiece painted for the Siena Cathedral by the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. Yet withing the individual tableau the figures move. Initially these tableau appear empty, then one or two characters enter the frame-within-the-frame, often setting up the items they find there for the rest of the scene. They are soon joined by others and the action takes place before freezing suddenly, in an exact representation of Duccio's poses. Once the moment has been captured, the scene unfreezes and the characters leave the scene; in the majority of cases in order to move into the next cell in the sequence.

    However, the opening ten minutes of the film however is rather different. Instead of the full view of all twenty-six cells, we start zoomed in on the central crucifixion scene. This clues the audience in as to how the rest of the film will work so that when, after the titles, the camera pans out to reveal all twenty-six panels we know to look closely at where the action is taking place. It starts in the bottom left tableau - the Triumphal Entry - and works its way along the bottom row and onto the top, before finally returning to one last shot where all the scenes are repeated simultaneously.

    It's undoubtedly a film that would look best on a cinema screen. If you get the chance to see this one at home - it is currently screening on the home-streaming service MUBI (for a few more days) - then do so on your biggest screen and position yourself as close to it as is comfortable. Only this way can you see the details and where the action deviates slightly from what might be expected. In the Gethsemane scene Jesus splits off from himself - an interesting interpretation of 'withdrawing' in order to pray. At another point the mocking and scourging scenes take place at more or less the same time.

    The effect is not just merely quirky, as if for the sake of it, but stunning. Individuals scenes appear messy and occasionally gaudy, but somehow achieve perfection just as the action freezes. It makes the viewer look at and consider the painting in an entirely new way, but one that is thoroughly in keeping with the original work. It makes you want to see the original. If it had received widespread distribution Siena would doubtless be overrun.

    Wednesday, May 03, 2017

    Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010)
    En waar de sterre bleef stille staan (And Where the Stars Remained Silent)

    Little Baby Jesus of Flander
    (Van den Berghe, 2010) was released just two years after Serra's Birdsong and is certainly reminiscent of it. It's West European origin, stark black and white photography, long takes and, of course, subject matter make for an easy comparison. Surprisingly, it was also director Gust Van den Berghe's first film. More recently he directed Lucifer which I reviewed back in 2015.

    But whereas Birdsong appears, on the balance of probability, to be set in the past, Little Baby Jesus seems to be set in something approaching the modern day (though it is based on a Flemish play written by Felix Timmermans in 1924). Neither film provides absolutely clear markers. Birdsong's small cast list and outdoor setting place the focus more on it being timeless than necessarily in the time of Jesus; Little Baby Jesus shows the characters in a pub at the start of the film, then later in a music club, and later still dashing towards an illuminated city on a night-time horizon. There are other clues to a modern day setting, but initially the film leaves it unclear as to whether this is a modernised re-telling of the nativity story, or just deluded "wise men" mistaking their experience for something it isn't.

    The plot, such that it is, revolves around three separate Christmases. In the first, three "beggars" Suskewiet, Pitje Vogel and Schrobberbeeck sit down to console one another at a pub (Caruso 2010). Following a Flemish tradition they have been going from door to door singing Flemish folk songs in a largely unsuccessful attempt to gain some money (twelve francs and fourteen cents). But they do also meet a man whose wife is so heavily pregnant that when the three call on them later they also encounter the couple's new born son.

    The film's ambiguity is heightened by the use of actors with Down's Syndrome to play the majority of parts in the film, including the leading roles of the 'Magi', 'Mary' and 'Joseph'. This draws on the audience's prejudices and limited understanding in order to pose difficult questions. It's a bold move. Actors with Down's syndrome have limited opportunities to appear in film and when they arise it's usually playing a character with the condition, rather than a role that could, in theory, have been given to any actor. Yet it doesn't appear that Van den Berghe is particularly campaigning on the issue, certainly it never feels like this is a force piece of over-earnest propaganda. Interviews with Van den Berghe show him to be aware and empathetic towards his actors, yet also very pragmatic about the situation and indeed appreciative of what he gains byworking with them.

    What Van den Berghe's choice of actors does do however is create ambiguity around what the audience witnesses, without providing easy answers. Its all too easy to lazily assume that Suskewiet's almost immediate belief that he has met "Mary, Joseph and Little Baby Jesus" is down to childlike naivety or a lack of intelligence, but for the fact it is his two friends who doubt, question and interrogate him are also portrayed by those with Down's. Such generalisations are rarely helpful. Here the film confronts us not only with our own ignorance about the condition, but also about the shortcomings in how we all approach issues of spirituality and faith.

    By the time the second Christmas comes around, Suske has not seen his friends for sometime. We find him contemplating his experiences accompanied by one of the film's most striking images - a fleet of rowing boats displaying crucifixes as they bob up and down in the sea. His peace is soon disrupted by a bishop and a priest who disliking his utterances threaten to have him "carted off to the loony bin". Moments later the two lead a procession seemingly doing just that to an angel, who sits glumly on a stretcher as she is carried away.

    These are just a couple of the many unusual and surreal images that populate the film. Indeed the film constantly contrasts such quirky imagery with long, peaceful meditative shots, such as the slow, three-minute pan across a "Brueghel-esque winter landscape" with which the film opens (van Hoeij 2010). Not infrequently these appear in the same shot, such as the aforementioned shot of boats on the sea, or the brass band marching across the horizon that precedes it.

    The soundtrack, by Va Fan Fahre, is no different. In addition to the aforementioned Flemish folk songs, we hear the brass band; but also circus tunes, an Arabic mourning song, classical religious music, accordion pieces and "operatic electronica" (Senjanovic 2010). Both the audio and visual elements contribute to the film's dream-like feel and "original and tender tone" (Sejanovic 2010). Indeed Van den Berghe thinks the feelings experienced watching the film are far more important than the actual story. "..it's about feeling, about emotion about experiencing something....If you don't need it [the story] to feel good about it, then don't." (Van Aertryck 2010)

    Eventually Suskewiet's friends find him, blessing sheep and reciting bits of Palm 119. But then, moments later, they fall out with each other over the nature of what exactly it was they witnessed the previous Christmas, not to mention the hunger in their stomachs. Pitje and Schrobberbeeck find themselves in a club and there - in the film's only colour scene - they witness, emerging from an upwards pan (as if they are ascending into Heaven), a man dressed as a woman singing. According to Van den Berghe, whilst the iconography suggests Heaven it's really more about the reality of our modern world (as opposed to the fake world of the rest of the movie). As he puts it himself, "You're in a very safe world until...and this is where the scenario lifts up from this old medieval piece to something more modern... all of a sudden they are in a very, very strange place...It's a bit of statement maybe about modern life, because we are fake and this guy is fake. ..because this guy is pretending to be a woman but he's not." (Van Aertryck 2010).

    The unusual experience only brings Pitje Vogel's frustrations to a head. He calls Suske a "traitor" who has ruined the men's reputation only to find Schrobberbeeck continues to defend him. The two men argue and go their separate ways. Shortly after he meets two figures in the forest and makes something of a Faustian pact with the result that by the start of the "Third Christmas" segment, he is sat as if on a throne in a pristine, spacious, white room next to an inverted cross an fretting about his fears about both the Devil and Heaven. The imagery is dense and complex from there on in, very much leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

    As with Birdsong the film's style is very much at odds with the classic Biblical Epic. Whilst it is an adaptation of Matthew's account, it adheres far more closely to Timmermans' play "En waar de sterre bleef stille staan" (And Where the Stars Remained Silent) and whilst ultimately the filmmakers seem to settle on this being a surrealist, modernised adaptation of the story, albeit with substantial dramatic licence, it is also possible to interpret it in other ways. Naturally, the surrealist tone is almost in complete contrast with the typical Biblical Epic. Again cast numbers are minimal and whilst the setting mixes rural and urban contexts these are not the gigantic sets of Roman architecture, but brief glimpses of real, modern day buildings, typically far in the background.

    Yet in many ways the film is much closer to traditional epics than it might appear. Consider for a moment, Babington and Evans' list of types of spectacle found in most biblical epics (pp.64-65). Whilst it's true that those of "architecture", "the body", "ceremonies", "ancient warfare" and "slavery"  are absent, there are certainly various examples of the spectacles of "geography", "costumes", "forbidden gods", "sadism" and "the act of God". Whilst these are typically adopted in a more playful, post-modern fashion they are nevertheless present, (though there was always something slightly knowing about their inclusion in the epics of the 1950s and 1960s). But perhaps the way the film aligns most closely with the Biblical Epic is the element of camp. Here some of the costumes are kitschy, others more typical of queer cinema, notably the cross-dressing night club singer and the cackling, make-up-wearing fallen angel.

    In many ways, then, whilst Little Baby Jesus of Flandr takes certain steps even further away from the traditional Biblical Epic (such as moving the story to a modern era), it is often those very elements that bring it full circle towards some of the genre's typical characteristics. Whilst it's unlikely that it will ultimately become venerated by conservative audiences, Perhaps this is because the camp is every bit as modernised as the rest of the story and because with biblical films and conservative audiences, 'modernised camp' is so much less familiar than ancient camp. All of which brings to mind something Suskewiet says as he reflects on how his encounter has brought division as well as revelation. "I don't want to scare people, I just want to tell them how beautiful God has made the Earth."

    Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Caruso, Valerie. "Gust Van den Berghe, director of Little Baby Jesus of Flandr", (Video Interview) Available online - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jCGT-WYAaE Posted 26th May 2010. Accessed 1st May 2017.

    Senjanovic, Natasha. "Little Baby Jesus of Flandr -- Film Review", Hollywood Reporter. 14th October 2010. Available online at www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/little-baby-jesus-flandr-film-29596 Accessed 29/4/2017

    Van Aertryck, Maximilien "Interview with Gust van den Berghe about Little Baby Jesus of Flandr", (Video Interview) Available online -https://vimeo.com/11872589 Posted 19th May 2010. Accessed 1st May 2017.

    Van Hoeij, Boyd. "Review: 'Little Baby Jesus of Flandr", Variety. 14th May 2010

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