• 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, July 26, 2017

    Chasing the Star Getting a September DVD Release

    Back in June I compiled what I thought was a comprehensive list of films based on the Nativity. Within days I'd come across two further movies to add to the list which I have now updated.

    The first was 2010's Io sono con te (literally "I am with you", but released in English speaking countries as Let it Be), which I reviewed earlier in the month.

    The other was Chasing the Star, slated for release in September this year. It's the second in a trilogy of New Testament films written by DJ Perry, the first being last year's 40 Nights. The release date seems a little early for a film based on the events of the first Christmas, but I guess there are two issues which may have nudged things in that direction.

    Firstly, there is the fact that Sony have already announced their plans for the release of a major animated Nativity film called The Star featuring the voices of Oprah Winfrey, Christopher Plummer, Ving Rhame, Kris Kristofferson and Tracy Morgan amongst others. That's due for release in November, so I imagine there producers have thought both that it's best to get their film out there first.

    Secondly, it's possible that the filmmakers are hoping that from a small initial release they will be able to build an audience based on word of mouth, If that strategy is going to come to pass then they will need it to have a few weeks/months build up so that it peaks during advent. Plus the publicity surrounding The Star is likely to boost discussion of films about the Nativity, which might also give a boost to their sales.

    I've posted the trailer above and it features prominently on the film's web site. There's a little bit about the film, it's brief theatrical release in three cities in Michigan here and the film's IMDb page is here.

    The trailer is not the least like you might expect. There are no tinklings of Christmas carols, indeed the music is not at all seasonal or cosy. No dissimilarly the trailer studious avoids the typical Nativity scene shots. There are no men on camels, virgins in blue robes or dazzling stars. Indeed there isn't even a shot of three magi together. Then, there's the dialogue which is kind of angsty. All of which, I think, is encouraging, suggesting that this will be a more interesting project that the typical faith-based Mary and Joseph movie.

    Hopefully I will get to review this one before the release of the DVD.

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    Phoenix and Mara to star in Mary Magdalene

    I'll hopefully post more info on this film shortly, but there's been relatively little official info on this one so far.

    What we do know is that Rooney Mara will be playing Mary Magdalene and that Joaquin Phoenix will be playing Jesus. Chiwetel Ejiofor also has a role and Garth Davis, who directed the excellent TV series Top of the Lake back in 2013 is down to direct.It's due for release in November.

    There is of course the vaguely controversial/iconic photos of Phoenix and Mara in costume smoking on the set, and Peter Chattaway has a little bit more.

    Hopefully there will be more about this one soon.

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    Wednesday, July 19, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 1

    This is the first in a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode with fairly unvarnished comments rather than a more crafted review.

    Roma Downey and Mark Burnett's A.D. Kingdom and Empire (or A.D. The Bible Continues if you live in North America) is the sequel to 2013's The Bible and 2014's Son of God, and a remake of the 1985 series A.D. so it's kind of surprising that the events it depicts start on Maundy Thursday before even Jesus has died. There's a new actor playing Jesus (as opposed to The Son of God's Diego Morgado), this time it's the turn of the darker Juan Pablo Di Pace, though some of the original actors do survive to the new series. There are a couple of other notable casting decisions as well. Joanne Whalley (Scandal, The Borgias) plays Pilate's wife, whilst Vincent Reagan, who played King Mattaniah in 1998's Jeremiah plays Pontius Pilate.

    Part 1, then, covers the kind of material that usually belongs to the end of Jesus films. starting with Jesus' trial at the house of Caiaphas and ending, with the empty tomb, so there's plenty of scope for comparison with other productions. From a historical-ish point of view, Jesus is crucified with nails through his hands, in contrast to the recent trend in favour of archaeological findings suggesting the nails went through the wrists. We don't get to see whether Jesus carries the whole cross or just the cross beam, though a later shot of the cross itself suggests the carpentry is too elaborate for the latter and it nails its colours to the mast on th eissue of whether or not Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover. Furthermore, the key Roman soldier, who claims responsibility for actually killing Jesus, turns out to be called Cornellius who, presumably, is going to pop up in a later episode.

    That clarifying shot of the cross is from a rather odd scene of Caiaphas visiting the now empty and deserted cross, and surmising that he "bled like a man" before ordering it to be broken up, which suggests he is able to order Roman soldiers about? Either way, this assertive view of Caiaphas ia fairly prevalent. Pilate is reticent about killing Jesus whereas Caiaphas and the crowd are insistent Caiaphas is far too cosy with Pilate, and the account of the soldiers being posted at the tomb is exaggerated. In one later scene he paces around Pilate's office, whilst the prefect lounges passively in his chair.

    And from an anti-Semitism point of view its a bit troublesome. There's a large crowd calling for Jesus death and this is not just at Pilatre's house, there is also a large baying crowd at Caiaphas' house. That said much of this is offset by showing Caiaphas' home life' his wife and kids, and by the way Joseph of Arimathea is shown as in Caiaphas' inner circle.

    "He was killed for the repeated blasphemy of claiming to be the Messiah", which again isn't really true. Jesus did tell the woman in John 4 that he was the Messiah, and he praised Peter for calling him that, without actually affirming the claim. He clearly thought of himself as special and acted in ways consistent with being the messiah but by the point of his trial he certainly hasn't been "repeatedly claiming" he is the messiah. And if, when pushed to answer if he is "the Christ", he affirms it, this is not really consistent with "repeatedly claiming" his messiaship.

    Of course that's something of a nit-pick, however it's typical of the way this episode (and I guess we'll see about the series in general) features characters speaking with the hindsight, interpretation and overconfidence of some modern evangelical preachers. Their comments are neither a strictly accurate refelction of what is in the gospel, nor the kinds of things these characters would have ever said. They're anachronistic, modern, western Christian refelctions on the gospels, not the things themselves.

    Case in point, here, everyone seems very sure Jesus prophecied that he would rise from the dead. Mary recalls Jesus' "prophecy" that "on the third day he promises  to rise from death" which is a stretch both theologically and indeed grammatically. Jesus may have made such claims, but none of his followers seem to grasp what he's saying. It therefore even less likely that Caiaphas would have heard and so interpreted these claims, but this is what we find in Matthew's gospel, (27:62-66), but I've long found this passage and its conclusion (28: 11-15) kind of hokey, but I guess many of you wouldn't see it that way. If so you'll be pleased because this is pretty much how A.D. plays it, Caiaphas anticipates that the disciples are going to try and raise the tomb after three days' and so pushes for a full Roman guard. This feels kinda hokey to me to, but I guess, on this point, I can't legitimately criticise it for being fairly faithful to the text, at least in this instance.

    One of the consistent tendencies which I criticised The Bible for was this bombastic exaggeration - scenes dialled up to 11, making scenes far more dramatic and over the top than they are in in the original and so here the earthquake accompanying Jesus' death causes huge destruction, outing even DeMille's version of this scene in the shade, with numerous fatalities. The shot (above) from inside the holy of holies as the curtain is torn in two is interesting, however, in spite of being a bit much. To an even greater extent, the resurrection scene really outdoes itself, with a flaming commet that turns into a armour clad angel, some hearty singing and a tomb that glows from the inside. This also gives some context to those large crowds calling for Jesus' death, whilst the filmmakers should be wise as to how their film portrays Jewish culpability, their choice of these large crowds is primarily driven by making every, single, aspect of their film scaled up and and over the top.


    Tuesday, July 11, 2017

    ...And God Spoke (1993)

    In theory, a mockumentary about the making of a Bible film should be funny. There's an overblown genre with an penchant for taking itself too seriously and, as audiences assume, a habit of going way, way over budget. Then there's the fact that those that engage in such undertakings not infrequently suffer from delusions of grandeur. DeMille's cameo in Sunset Bouelvard (1950) may be a famous example of an epic director sending up his own image, but it's rare. This is not just because of the genre with which he DeMille is now best remembered, but because, satirical takes on, and mockumentaries about, directors are thin on the ground in general. Add to that fact that to many parts the Bible are themselves inherently funny (something even the most devout will admit on occasion) and there would seem to be promising ingredients for an amusing film.

    Sadly, ...And God Spoke is not that film. It's hard to pinpoint why exactly that is, but essentially, this feels like a three-minute skit stretched to the length of a feature film. This affects things in numerous ways. Firstly, the two leading characters, director/producer team Clive Walton and Marvin Handleman, never develop to become believable or likeable characters. Yes they take themselves too seriously and yes they're clearly not up to the job, but whereas that would work across a sketch, for a full movie it quickly becomes tiresome and implausible. Would a movie studio really hand out quite so much cash to these pair?

    Compare this to the musicians in Spinal Tap. Whilst they clearly believe their own ridiculously overblown hype and are hardly masters of their respective crafts, they are reasonable enough musicians. The chaos and amusement that ensues is as much about the more human failings such as communication, organisation and ego, than it is about basic competence. Furthermore, This is Spinal Tap manages to make its heroes interesting and even slightly endearing, whereas here, not only are they incompetent, on any level, they're also not really that likeable.

    Sercondly, And God Spoke (or The Making of 'And God Spoke... as some have it) suffers from a lackof any kind of plot or narrative momentum. Two guys get the go ahead to make a Bible movie, but their plans fall apart. It's a beginning and maybe even a middle, but that's it. And gradually as the film continues, its lack of anything engaging turns to frustration. EVen if it was never going to be a classic, it should at least have been better than this.

    Admittedly there is, very occasionally, the odd half-decent line. When the studio forces them to cut back and jettison the film's New Testament section, the two optimisitically reflect, "we still got Moses. Hopefully he can save us like he did the Jews". The sight of the actor who plays Jesus smoking is probably funnier now thanit was then what with the photos of Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix smoking on the set of the forthcoming Mary Magdalene and smoking onscreen being something of a taboo on screen in general. Also the sight of Lou "Incredidible Hulk" Ferrigno playing himself playing Cain, is not without merit.

    But really, this is a very poor film. I first watched it quite a few years ago and decided then that it probably wasn't worth the effort to review it and in some ways I'm not sure why I'm bothering now. If you want a second opinion then I guess Variety kinda liked it at the time. But even so, a missed opportunity.


    Monday, July 03, 2017

    Io sono con te (Let It Be, 2010)

    In contrast to films such as the BBC's The Nativity, which uses a romance between Mary and Joseph to drive the plot, Guido Chiesa's Io sono con te (which literally means 'I am with you') is possibly the first feature length Nativity film which chooses not depict the holy couple as in love. There is affection and respect, but ultimately this is not so much their story, as her story.

     In part this is because Joseph is so much older than Mary. Mary is played by a 15 year old Tunisian actor Nadia Khlifi who looks even younger which would make any kind of romantic attachment rather uncomfortable for modern viewers. Whilst "there's nothing ethereal or other worldly (or even conventionally beautiful) about her", (Haven 2011) Khlifi manages to exude an unusual mix of vulnerability and strength, often defying the patriarchy that dominates her village.

    This patriarchy is very much a defining part of the village's life which is portrayed here in ways radically different from the traditional biblical epic. For one thing all the characters in this film look they, like Khlifi, might have roots in the Middle East. The film was shot in Tunisia - parts of it on the very sets that Roberto Rossellini used for his Jesus film Il Messia (The Messiah, 1975) - and the majority of the cast and extras were chosen from the region. This has been an increasing trend in recent biblical films. As Peter Chattaway, writing about the choice of Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary in The Nativity Story (2006), observes
    "Gone are the days when blue-eyed, blonde-haired actors and actresses could pass themselves off as the Jewish Messiah or his immediate friends and family. Audiences expect more “authenticity” these days, and filmmakers eager to promote their films as something new and different are more than willing to provide it. 
    Even Mel Gibson, who faced a firestorm of controversy over allegedly anti-Semitic elements in The Passion of the Christ, made a point of altering the appearance of actor James Caviezel (through make-up, and by digitally turning his eyes from blue to brown) in order to make his Jesus look more Jewish."
    Since then the trend has only accentuated with Jesus recently having been portrayed by Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman in Killing Jesus (2015), half-Tamil Selva Rasalingam in The Gospel of Mark (2016) and Israeli actor Aviv Alush in The Shack (2017).1

    But as well as the actors' ethnicity being worthy of note, their costumes and the manner in which their way of life is portrayed is similar significant. Gone is the pale blue linen wraps so beloved of screen Marys. Here she wears various long, brightly-coloured, striped woollen kaftan-type garments. Almost all characters have their heads covered most of the time, Joseph, for example wears a tallit for a great deal of the film.

    It is Mary’s strength, particularly with respect to her strong sense of morality, that is very much one of the key themes that this film is exploring. It’s hardly surprising, then that the film has been praised for its feminist credentials. However, an independently minded Mary is hardly original in and of itself. The same could be said of Keisha Castles-Hughes in The Nativity Story (2006). What makes Io sono so notable in this respect is that rather her defiance being against her parenting, or those who question her purity, here the film pits her against numerous aspects of both the Jewish religion and a wider Middle Eastern culture. In particular the practice of circumcision comes in for heavy criticism, most memorably in a scene where another baby is circumcised. The scene consists of a fast montage where, in a similar fashion to Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Psycho (1960) numerous short shots are spliced together to create the impression that you see an incision, whereas in fact yo do not. Io sono both borrows this technique, but also draws on it’s heritage reflecting the horror that Mary feels at the practice. It is not insiginifcant that Chiesa's website contains a link to the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centres.

    As far as the film is concerned, Mary's strong sense of morality means that Jesus is uncircumcised. That could be taken as pre-figuring the way Jesus' followers would soon remove the requirement to be circumcised from their newly founded religion. Yet at the same time as appreciating the point that Chiesa seems to be trying to make about the inappropriateness of the practice in the modern world, I'm also a little troubled by him portraying a non-circumcised saviour. Jewish-Christian history is littered with examples of the terrible consequences that have occurred when Christians have overlooked some of the markers of Jesus' Jewish identity and circumcision is undoubtedly a key one of those. At the same time, the film does such a lot to emphasise Jesus' Jewishness, from the mezuzah on most of the characters door posts, to the head coverings, portrayals of the synagogue, actors ethnicity, scriptures cited and, actually, the intra-religious discussion about the finer points of the law. Which is to say portraying an uncircumcised Jesus might be a problem were it not for the fact that few, if any, films come close to Io sono in their portrayal of Jesus as a Jew.

    That aside, circumcision is just one of the many bloody acts that Mary is appalled by. The spectacle of animal sacrifice circles her throughout the film with numerous appearances of sheep and goats punctuating the film. Indeed even the annunciation, such as it is, takes place whilst Mary is milking goats. Later she witnesses one giving birth and others being slaughtered in the temple. Numerous other images of animals with such Girardian overtones appear throughout the film. Little wonder then that the words of Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (later repeated by Jesus), are amongst those that Mary draws upon during the film.

    The film also shows Mary refusing to partake in the political violence portrayed by the film, be it the Romans/Herod's soldiers strong arming the local populace, or Jewish rebels seeking to avenge it. When the rebels begin to try and gain support Mary leads her family, and particularly Joseph's other son, away.

    But Mary does not just stand against physical acts of violence. One of the key rules that Mary disregards entirely is an apparent taboo on feeding new-borns their mother's milk for the first few days of their lives. This rule, which is not found in the Bible emphasises that the form of Judaism that Mary, and by extension, the filmmakers, find objectionable is an unorthodox variety, suggesting that not all forms of Judaism should be treated in the same fashion.

    Mary, and later Jesus, are also appalled by the ostracisation of a man called Hillel (whose liberal historical namesake is best known for coining the "golden rule"). For reasons that are never made clear, Hillel is permanently considered unclean and forced to live so far away from the village that he cannot walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath without breaking. Initially Mary and eventually Jesus refuse to conform and visit Hillel at his house, eventually encouraging him to attend the synagogue. Jesus objects when he is told to leave, but only succeeds in convincing the rabbi to change the reason that Hillel has to leave. It's another indicator of the strict purity rules that exist in the fictional Mary's village and of which the majority would have confronted the historical Mary and Jesus as well. And again it's the kind of scape-goating that is very familiar to those that know Girard's work.

    The fact that Chiesa's film is an exploration of Girard's philosophy is something that the director confirmed in an email to Girard scholar Cynthia Haven, a section of which she included in her review of the film:
    "René Girard‘ s work was a great source of inspiration for our project and it helped us a great deal during the writing of the script and the understanding of several Biblical passages about Mary and Jesus’ s childhood" (Haven)
    If biblical epics are a vehicle for big themes and concerns, then Girard's unending cycle of violence is hard to top.

    Even more interestingly than this, is the way the film seems to want to extend this revulsion at this form of Judaism beyond its characters to its audience. The final part of the film concerns the period when Jesus is twelve. The circle of life has completed another revolution; Jesus is now the age as his mother was at the beginning of the film. He sits there and listens to one of the religious leaders recounting the time Moses commanded a man to be stoned to death for collecting wood on the Sabbath. To modern ears it is an horrific story that rightly belongs to the distant past. Here it is presented without bias, comment or reaction. It would be there for the viewers to make up their minds, except, for the fact that shorn of its original context, no modern viewer could find it acceptable.

    But of course, in Jesus' day this was still the law and the story's presence here is a jarring reminder of the context into which Jesus and Mary came. Typically, biblical films transport us into a world that purports to be the past, but really resembles our own far more than it ought to, what Sobceck describes as the "projection of ourselves-now as we-then". (Sobcheck, 284) Here, however, and throughout the film, Chiesa has given us an emotive reminder of how very different the past was from our own time.

    1 - This is for New Testament films made by westerners. Clearly films such as the Iranian films Saint Mary (1997) and Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007) have been employing Middle Eastern actors for some time.

    Chattaway, Peter T. (2006), "Ethnicity in Jesus Films: Does it Matter?" FilmChat, 24 November 2006. Available online - http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2006/11/ethnicity-in-jesus-films-does-it-matter.html Accessed 3 July 2017.

    Chiesa, Guido (2010), Io Sono con Te: La Storia Della Ragazza Che ha Cambiato del Mondo. Magda Film, Colorado Film RAI Cinema. Available Online - http://guidochiesa.net/media/opera/nicoletta-micheli-filippo-kalomenidis-e-guido-chiesa/io-sono-con-te/pressbook.pdf Accessed 2 July 2017.

    Haven, Cynthia (2011), "Io Sono Con Te: A film with a René Girard p.o.v.", 21 February 2011. Book Haven. Avaliable Online - http://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2011/02/io-sono-con-te-a-film-with-a-rene-girard-p-o-v/ Accessed 2 July 2017

    Sobchack, Vivian (1995), '"Surge and Splendour": A Phenomology of the Hollywood Historical Epic', in Grant, Barry Keith, Film Genre Reader II, 280-307, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.