• 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


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    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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    • At 1:10 pm, May 14, 2017, Blogger 1 click dissertation review said…

      Indeed very great moves that capture this fascinating story. It seemed that it is very difficult to capture all scenes in natural way but they did great job and they have the right of encouragement.


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