• 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


    Wednesday, June 21, 2017

    La Sacra Famiglia (2006)
    The Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph

    At 159 minutes long Raffaele Mertes' La Sacra Famiglia (2006) is one of the longest films primarily about the birth and childhood of Jesus, but, surprisingly it's the least "epic" of all of those I have looked at recently.

    It's actually Mertes' second film about the birth/childhood of Jesus, the first being Joseph of Nazareth from six years earlier. Indeed Mertes has become one of the most prolific Bible film producers having also directed Esther(1999), Mary Magdalene (2000), The Apocalypse (2000), Thomas (2001) and Judas (2001). Mertes' seventh and, at the time of writing, final Biblical tele-visual film is one of his better ones however, most notably in the first half whilst the story is still able to stick relativity closely to the gospel accounts.

    The story starts in the period immediately before Mary and Joseph's betrothal. In contrast to almost every Jesus film that covers the subject Mary hails not from Nazareth, but from Jerusalem. She has been orphaned before the start of the film and, in an interesting interpretation, now lives with her aunt and uncle Elizabeth and Zechariah. She's adventurous and fun-loving as a scene where she fashions bed sheets into a rope in order to escape from her room, but also capable of being serious and strong-willed ("I am the one who decides who I will marry").

    Not dissimilarly Joseph also plays against the traditional portrait, at least the one that we find in cinema. Rather than having long had feelings for Mary (and having to bide his time until she, euugh, reached the already rather young marriageable age), he is a widower, himself also something of a rebellious character, who gets chosen to be Mary's husband when a nearby almond tree spontaneously bursts into bloom. It's one of a number of miracles in the film, all of which are handled in a low-key fashion. This is a strong contrast with traditional biblical epics when miracles are typically accompanied by swelling, reverential music. Joseph takes some convincing that anything out of the ordinary has occurred. After all he was only a visitor in Jerusalem, heading home to Nazareth.

    This leads onto another are in which La Sacra Famiglia differs from the traditional biblical epics, its lack of self-seriousness. Again, it's noticeable right from the early scenes that Joseph is often a source of mild comic relief, notably when his donkey refuses to behave as he wants it to. There's something of Au Hasard Balthasar here, with the donkey as a divine agent who honks just in time to prevent Mary and Joseph kissing in an early scene, and kicks Joseph to prevent him from leaving Mary later on. The donkey is a divine fool, acting for God yet nevertheless providing comic relief. This contrasts with the approach of the classic epics where the aesthetic only works if everyone keeps a straight face (even if they give the impression they might have been a lot of fun to make).

    Mary and Joseph's arrival back in Nazareth causes something of a stir. Like Mertes' Joseph of Nazareth Joseph has children from his previous marriage (in line with Catholic and Orthodox theology rather than Protestant). These have grown up to the age whereby they are far closer to Mary's age than is their father, and her fiancé. Indeed James also seems to be attracted to Mary and while his dad seems a little unsure about about marrying her, James shows far less reticence. Joseph is a little thrown by this but Mary's strength of character comes through again. "I must follow God's will, not James's. I'm promised to you". Joseph concerns ("I'm old enough to be your father.") are soon alleviated.

    In addition to Joseph's sons, James and Judas, we're also introduced to other members of the family, such as Joseph's daughter Sarah, his brother Cleopas (and, of course Mary's uncle, who we met in the almond-tree scene above, is Zechariah the priest). There's a real suggestion, then, that most of those associated with following Jesus during his lifetime were members of his own family.

    Things are complicated further when Joseph has to head away for work for a few months. Joseph has noted something going on between James and Mary, and so he leaves Judas in charge. It's during this prolonged absence that Mary has a vision from God by which she understands that she is to give birth. Interestingly whereas one of the characteristics of many epics is the audible voice of God, here the message is conveyed silently so that only Mary hears it and using techniques such as slow-motion and hand-held camerawork which tend to feauture in epics only during battle scenes. When Joseph returns he is naturally dismayed, but quickly realises he loves Mary and decides without apparent divine intervention (aside from his donkey) that he should stay with her.

    The film adopts a more traditional approach for the remainder of part one, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, find a stable and host unusual visitors. The most notable moment here is when Joseph rushes off to find the village mid-wife - the only time I can recall the use of an unknown midwife in amongst all the birth of Jesus films I have seen.

    The second half of the film never quite matches the strengths of the first. As Catherine O'Brien observes "efforts to depict the childhood of Jesus are fraught with danger". (2016: 456) Not only does the audience know Jesus' survival is assured, but once Herod dies there is no real antagonist (save perhaps a sulky James, and some immigrant hating Egyptians) and rather than re-working a familiar and cherished tale, as with the first part of the film, the second half is largely what was created by the screenwriter.

    Nevertheless, La Sacra Famiglia is one of the better dramatisations of the birth and childhood of Jesus. Certainly the first half, which can stand by itself, will get repeat viewings around Christmas time in years to come.


    Sunday, June 18, 2017

    Joseph and Mary (2016)

    Joseph and Mary is just one of five films from 2016 and 2017 to make an explicit attempt to cover the birth and childhood of Jesus. The Star and Chasing the Star are both due for release later this year, The Young Messiah was the highest profile release of those from last year and Le Fils de Joseph won acclaim on the art house circuit. Which leaves Joseph and Mary a Christian movie distributed by PureFlix and directed by Roger Christian. The film's biggest star is Kevin Sorbo, best known for his work in another epic production the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999).

    Indeed, from the start, the film makes clear its aspirations to fit the mould of the classic biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s, John Rhys-Davies' rich, Welsh, voice narrating exactly the same kind of prologue, one "in which the voice of history defines...the significance of the world-historical contest to be enacted". (Babington and Evans 1993: 181)
    It was the year of our Lord, Jerusalem was ruled by King Herod the Great. Ruthless and greedy he ignored the laws of God and chose the favours of Rome over his own people. But from the darkness emerged light. The time had come to bear witness to a 2000 year prophecy: a child of God would be born.
    Rhys-Davies' close association with epic films, and indeed biblical films, in his younger days gives his introduction extra significance, a trusted and authoritative voice of experience, "old-world knowledge" and "apostolic wisdom". (Babington and Evans 1993: 182). As with the opening of King of Kings (1961) the voice-over is accompanied by images of the temple set against the clear blue sky.

    When the film descends to street level to pick up the story, we find that the annunciation, and the accompanying emotional drama, has already happened. Furthermore, Mary conceiving outside of marriage does not seems to have caused the least bit of controversy. Indeed they remain close friends of the local rabbi/Pharisee Elijah and a recent young widow, Rebecca. This couple form a contrasting pair with Mary and Joseph, particularly Elijah who is selfless and good. Indeed his devotion to his Jewish faith marks him as exactly the kind of positive, yet fully Jewish, character that was so needed in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    In contrast, Rebecca is afflicted by the urge for revenge. The same soldier, Tiberius, kills her husband in the opening scene, then her two children during the slaughter in Bethlehem. As the years pass, her thirst for revenge remains unquenched. When her and Elijah are reunited with Mary and Joseph twelve years later (in the moments after Jesus has been lost in the temple) Elijah and Rebecca have married. Rebecca is no longer clad in the black of the opening scenes, and unusually for a character set on revenge, her desire for it has not corroded her soul entirely, but she is still determined to get even.

    The appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem is also interesting for the way it portrays Judaism. Not for the first time in the film there is debate amongst the Jewish leaders which manages to be passionate yet jovial. The men clearly love the cut and thrust of debate, and to defend their own ideas and listen to those of others as a natural part of faith and community, rather than as a source of conflict and division. These men are arguing together because they like one another, not because they don't. Jesus brings another angle to the discussion. It's welcomed and they are impressed, but they don't stand back in awe as if centuries of learning have suddenly fallen by the wayside. Again this is a very positive portrayal of Judaism, and not merely one where all the good characters are Christians-in-waiting.  

    However, the downside of this extra emphasis on Elijah and Rebecca, in addition to that on Joseph and Jesus, is that Mary is very much pushed to the margins. Indeed not only are Joseph, Jesus, Elijah and Rebecca more prominent than Mary, but even Tiberius, the Roman. As with Lucius in King of Kings (1961) and Severus in The Young Messiah (2016), Tiberius is a member of the roman-who-keeps-crossing-paths-with-Jesus trope, encountering the holy family at several points along the story's extended timeline. He first enters the story before Jesus' birth; then doesn't quite encounter them at the slaughter of the innocents; and then again later after the twelve-year-old Jesus' trip to Jerusalem. He also seems to be the character tasked with injecting a bit of camp into proceedings given the shortness of his tunic and sleeves.

    However it's not just the presence of other characters that squeezes Mary's screen time, it's that even the parts of the story where you would expect to find her role to be more prominent are strangely compressed, often even as Joseph's role is inflated. So the term of Mary's pregnancy is shortened; Joseph's efforts to find her a suitable place to have the baby are dramatised and fleshed out. The birth and the arrival of the magi are shown only in montage; Joseph's dream and the resultant flight to Egypt is expanded. As much time is spent on the holy family meeting Simeon and Anna as is spent on Jesus' birth, and even then Mary speaks only once in the scene.

    That said, perhaps this is just a matter of personal preference over subject matter. After all of the twelve most recent film versions of the Nativity, (going back all the way to the release of The Nativity Story in 2006), this is the only film to even mention Mary in the title. There's no reason why looking at the story from Joseph's point of view is without merit, in fact Raffaele Mertes did precisely that with Joseph of Nazareth in 2000. And this is what we see. Whereas other Jesus films, such as Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975) and Mary the Mother of Jesus (1999) showed moments where Mary is heard passing on the Precise form of phrases that he is recorded as saying during his ministry, here we hear Joseph talking to Mary and Elijah about having love for an enemy.

    Again this is the sort of slightly too pleased-with-itself connection touch that would not be out of place in a 1950s epic. Elsewhere, Jesus says to Elijah rather portentously "It seems we are at the crossroads Rabbi. Are you coming with me?" And then there are the unexpected connections such as it emerging that Jesus' uncle is Joseph of Arimathea.

    Indeed, whilst the film doesn't have the budget to give the visuals that epic feel and the soundtrack of largely consisting of synthesizer and string quartet lacks the militaristic pomp (Wood) that full orchestras gave to the major Hollywood epics. Nevertheless in many ways this is the film that has most attempted to walk in the footsteps of the epics of years gone by. The bright colours, prologue, sense of its own importance, camp and re-use of actors already established in the genre all capture something of a interestingly nostalgic return to the biblical epics in their heyday.


    Tuesday, June 13, 2017

    Nativity Films Revisited

    In the run up to the release of The Nativity Story back in 2006 I drew up a list of films about the birth and childhood of Jesus. I've come across quite a few more over the last decade so here's an update. I've put in a few links of interest, but haven't had time to link even to all the bits and pieces on these films even on my own blog. Overall, if you include this year's forthcoming The Star and Chasing the Star, that makes 53 films excluding documentaries (which compares to the mere 19 films I listed in 2006)

    -La naissance de Jésus (1908) - Gaumont
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1908) - Edison - 10 mins - B/W
    -The Birth of Jesus (1909) - France - short - hand tinted colour
    -La Nativité (1910) - France - short - B/W
    -Herod and the Newborn King (1910) - France - Gaumont - B/W
    -Star of Bethlehem (1912) review B/W - 3 reeler -
    -The Three Wise Men (1913) - US-Selig - - 1000 ft - B/W
    -The Birth of our Saviour (1914) - US - Edison - - 1000ft - B/W
    -Naissance de Jésus (1914) link Dir: Maurice-André Maître, starring: Jacques Normand
    -L 'Enfance de Jesus (1914) link
    -Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921) - Germany - B/W - Lotte Reiniger
    -Reina de reinas: La Virgen María - Mexican (1948)
    -Mater Dei (1950) - Italy - 80 minutes - dir: Emilio Cordero
    -A Child is Born (1950) - US-NBC TV - 30 mins - B/W
    -The Play of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (1952) - US - Studio One in Hollywood
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1954) - James Mason brief review
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1956) - D/GB - 90 mins (re-release of the Reiniger film with narration in English) brief review
    -Erode il grande [Herod the Great] (1959) - Italy/France - 93 mins - colour - dir: Arnaldo Genoino
    -Hvezda Betlemska (1969) - Czechoslovakia - (The Star of Bethlehem) - 10 mins - animated colour.
    -Jesús, el niño Dios (1971) - Mexico. Director Miguel Zacarías also directed...
    -Jesus, Maria Y Jose (1972) - pictured - 92 minutes YouTube
    -The Small One (1978) - US-short - 20 mins - colour
    -The Nativity (1978) - US-TV - 98 mins - colour
    -Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979)- Ca-TV - 152 mins - colour (review)
    Cammina, Cammina [Keep on Walking] (1982) - Italy - 171 mins - colour
    -Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982) review
    -Hail Mary (1985) link, review
    -Un bambino di nome Gesù - A Child Called Jesus (dir. Franco Rossi, 1987) FilmChat
    -L'Annonce faite a Marie (1991) - dir. Alain Cuny
    -Per amore solo per amore (1993) - Penélope Cruz
    -Marie de Nazareth (1994) Jean Delannoy Fr/B/Mor
    -La Estrella de Belen [Star of Bethlehem] (1998) Spain
    -Mary Mother of Jesus (1999) Bale
    -Close to Jesus: Joseph of Nazareth (2000)
    -Maria, figlia del suo figlio (2000) dir: F. Costa, Italy
    -The Nativity (2000) Latter Day Saints
    -Saint Mary (2001) dir. Shahriar Bohrani, Iran
    -Los Reyes Magos [The Magi-Kings] (2003) Spain
    -Maria - Mãe do Filho de Deus (2003)
    -The Nativity Story (2006) central page
    -La Sacre Famiglia (2006)
    -The Fourth King (2006)
    -La stella dei re (2007) Italian - 90 minutes
    -Birdsong (2008)
    -Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010)
    -BBC Nativity (2010)
    -Io sono con te (2010)
    -On Angel Wings (2014) animated short - review
    -Joseph and Mary (2016)
    -The Young Messiah (2016) review
    -Le Fils de Joseph (2016)
    -Chasing the Star (2017)
    -The Star (2017) - Sony Animation

    The very earliest films about Jesus were Passion Plays and as the twentieth century began these began to expand to include other episodes from the life of Jesus, including the Nativity story. The situation is complicated by the fact that these earliest tableau films were often sold in individual sections so it is difficult to work out which of the Pathé films were released in their own right.

    Nevertheless, the first Nativity epic was probably Thanhouser's 1912 The Star of Bethlehem which at three reels would have run for approximately 45 minutes. Whilst only a reel's worth of material survives it's clear to see rudimentary elements of the biblical epic already in place. Herod's lavish palace is packed with beautiful courtiers in exotic dress and Herod's outfit reveals his muscular limbs. According to the Thanhouser Vimeo page for the film, its special effects, which "took a week's work",  include a bright star that appears to shepherds and magi alike and a choir of angels appear in the stable to celebrate the saviour's birth, both indicators of divine activity. There is also impressive architecture, a 200-strong cast and a reputed cost of $8,000. .

    Whilst there were a number of other silent films based on the Nativity, such as Lotte Reinger's silhouetted Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921) it would not be until 1948 that a more expansive film was released. At 85 minutes, the Mexican Reina de reinas: La Virgen María (Queen of Queens: The Virgin Mary, 1948) was the longest film yet primarily focussed on Mary. Two years later the Italian film Mater Dei (Mother of God, 1950), covered the period from Mary's own childhood to Jesus' ministry. The decade witnessed vast swathes of 'pepla' such as Erode il grande (Herod the Great, 1959) which ends with Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents as an almost casual command after hearing the story from a shepherd (there's no sign of the magi).

    The 1950s also saw the first television adaptations of the Nativity story with four productions in the decade's first six years. A similar trend occurred in the latter part of the 1970s when both The Nativity (1978) and Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979) were broadcast. The only possible contenders for feature length Nativity films produced in this period, were two low-budget Mexican films by Miguel Zacarías Jesús, el niño Dios (1971, though it's length is unknown) and Jesus, Maria y José (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 1972).

    Widely regarded as quiet period for biblical films in general, there were a number of significant, feature-length, films released in the 1980s. Whilst this included traditional style Bible films such as Un bambino di nome Gesù (A Child Called Jesus,  1987) the majority took more unconventional approaches such as Jean Luc Godard's controversial Je vous salue Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), the comedy Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (Quarter to two before Jesus Christ, 1982) and the longest of all Nativity-themed films the Italian Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking, 1982). This popularity continued into the 1990s and the start of the twentieth century. Notable releases include Penélope Cruz in Per amore solo per amore (For Love, Only for Love, 1993) and Christian Bale in Mary, the Mother of Jesus (1999) as well as several films from Italy France and Spain, however none of these were the kind of big-budget spectacles that are associated with the biblical epic.

    This was about to change however with the unexpected success of an independently made Bible film which also gave significant focus to the relationship between Jesus and his mother - The Passion of the Christ (2004). This emboldened New Line into giving the green light to The Nativity Story (2006) and there have been several other films since which I suspect wouldn't have seen the light of day otherwise. It is noticeable, for example, that almost all of the films made since The Passion have been English language films. Regular readers may have noticed I have discussed a few of these in recent weeks and I intend to cover some of the others in more detail than fits here in the next few weeks as well.


    Thursday, June 01, 2017

    Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969)

    Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Jesus films if also one of the most likely to offend the devout, French auteur Philippe Garrel's Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed) is and usual take on the life of Jesus. Filmed shortly after the May 1968 protests in Garrel's trademark high-contrast, black and white style, it follows a young Jesus round the countryside as he tries to work out his angst and sense of lost-ness. The imagery and characters (Jesus, his mother and Mary Magdalene) are clearly biblical but the events that unfold are only tangentially related. As with Garrel's Le révélateur (1967) the images are dreamy and surreal and you sense that to try to interpret each as if it were some sort of cipher is to miss the point.

    The film sits, both chronologically and stylistically, somewhere between Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo and the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar, with the starkly beautiful black and white photography of the former and the rocky vibe and attitude of youthful rebellion of the latter. The second scene - a long tracking shot of Jesus riding a donkey down the middle of the street whilst being taunted by people riding on horses - accompanied by rock guitar, is perhaps the coolest shot of all biblical films. At other points the music is more accordion based - perhaps one of the sources of inspiration for the similarly surreal Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010).

    Some of the events that occur are easier to make sense of than others. Jesus is frequently rejected by those he meets, aside from Magdalene and, towards the end of the film, a small boy who asks him to open the large box he has begun to carry round on his shoulder. There' s a sense of foreboding about this, and the horrors that unfold when it is finally opened suggest Jesus has been carrying a sort of Pandora's box, containing the sins of the world. A Jesus type figure appears before Pilate, but it is only when they are dragged away that we realise it's not Jesus but Magdalene. The imagery here however suggests that this is not an attempt to radically revise the gospels as much as an attempt to appropriate the imagery of the gospels as metaphors relating to the failure May 1968.

    There's an interesting quote from Garrel on this aspect of the film on the Artfilms site:
    I believe my point of view on the Christian myth is quite clear in Le Lit de la Verge. It is a non-violent parable in which Zouzou incarnates both Mary and Mary Magdalene while Pierre Clementi incarnates a discouraged Christ who throws down his arms in face of world cruelty. In spite of its allegorical nature, the film contains a denunciation of the police repression of 1968, which was generally well understood by viewers at the time.
    There's also a quote there from Harvard's David Pendleton who says the film is only "minimally concerned with traditional religion" instead focusing on "the ways in which Garrel and his friends saw themselves as belonging to a kind of religious sect, engaging in ritual behavior.” I assume that the "friends" referred to here are those related with the Zanzibar Films Collective a group of directors and artists even younger than the French New Wave directors who had been inspired by the '68 uprisings. Also worth a read is a brief piece at Strictly Film School.