• 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, August 26, 2017

    Daniel in the Lion's Den
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible series (1978-79)

    In contrast to the way in which the story of Daniel has generally been a less popular on film than in general, The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series gave it two episodes out of a total of fifteen/seventeen. The unusual prominence the producers of the series give to it may also be reflected in the fact that it features one of the series' biggest stars, Robert Vaughn, as King Darius. Amongst the episode's other more recognisable faces were two former child stars, Sherry Jackson, from 50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy, and Dean Stockwell, best known to us from roles in Quantum Leap, Air Force One and Blue Velvet, but at the time known for a string of child roles. Indeed Stockwell is one of the few actors associated with the series whose career hit an upward trajectory after their role in it.

    Allotting the story of Daniel (played by David Birney) two episodes rather than one means that this episode, even more than other entries in the series, created a sub-plot to fill out the obvious human-interest shaped holes in the biblical narrative. Here Daniel's rivals are not only jealous that he is higher than them in the hierarchy, but concerned that he has caught them swindling the system. The three advisors (including Stockwell's Hissar) have been substituting cheap building materials for expensive ones and pocketing the extra cash. However, rather than enhancing his role, Daniel's eventual uncovering of the scheme, thanks to a tip off from a Jewish labourer, makes him look weak. The con has been going on for a long time and he, as Darius' chief advisor, has only just noticed. Not only that but whilst he is dithering about what to do about it, his fleet-of-foot rivals manage to convince Darius to create the law that imperils Daniel.

    The series frequently produces special effects that appear sub-par by today's standard, but Daniel in the Lions' Den is particularly culpable in this respect. Aside from the key scene in which an inferior stone lintel cracks at just the right moment to prove right Daniel and his labourer-ally, the angel/light that appears to protect Daniel in the den of lions (above) is really feeble. It seems unlikely to keep a child at bay, let alone a hungry lion.

    But if the episode does anything well it might be the way it suggests many of Daniel's fellow Jewish slaves distrust and even fear him now he has risen to such prominence. It's speculation of course, but it suggestion that 70ish years in exile is enough time for his people to grow affinity on the basis of their place in the social strata rather than race is an interesting one. Given that many Jews decided to stay in the region rather than return home to Judah, perhaps it is correct.

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    Thursday, August 24, 2017

    List of Daniel Films

    Whilst most of the stories from the Bible that get made into films tend to be those which are popular in Sunday Schools, one of the main exceptions is the story of Daniel. Popular in the pews; not so  much in Hollywood. Here's the titles of all the Daniel Films I've managed to find over the years:

    Les martyrs chretiens: Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Lucien Nonguet[France], 1905)
    Les martyrs chretiens: Le Festin de Balthazar (Lucien Nonguet[France], 1905)
    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Louis Feuillade[France], 1908)
    Le Festin de Balthazar (Louis Feuillade[France], 1910)
    Les Sept Péchés Capitaux: L’Orgueil (The Seven Capital Sins: No. 1, Pride (Nebuchadnezzar)) (Louis Feuillade[France], 1910)
    Cast into the Flames (Gaumont[France], 1910)
    The Fall of Babylon (Theo Frenkel[UK], 1911)
    Le Festin de Balthazar (Gaumont[France], 1913)
    Daniel (Frederick A. Thomson / Madison C. Peters[USA], 1913)
    Slaves of Babylon (William Castle[USA], 1953)
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Daniel in the Lions Den* (James L Conway[USA], 1978)
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar* (James L. Conway [], 1979)
    Nabucco (Henri Ronse[France], 1979)
    Nabucco (Renzo Giacchieri[Italy], 1981)
    Belshazzar (Harry Kupfer[Italy], 1985)
    Nabucco (Robert De Simone[Italy], 1986)
    Animated Stories from the Bible: Daniel (Richard Rich [USA], 1993)
    Veggie Tales: Rack, Shack & Benny  ( Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki,[USA], 1995)
    The Beginners Bible: The Story of Daniel in Lions' Den (Gary Selvaggio, [USA], 1996)Testament. The Bible in Animation: Daniel (Lioudmila Koshkina[UK], 1996)
    Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible: Daniel and the Lions' Den (William R. Kowalchuk [USA], 1998)
    Nabucco (Fabio Sparvoli[It/US/UK/FR/GER/CZ], 1998)
    Nabucco (Gianfranco de Bosio[Austria], 2000)
    Nabucco (Elijah Moshinsky[USA], 2001)
    Veggie Tales: Where is God when I'm S-S-Scared? ( Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki,[USA], 2003)
    Bugtime Adventures: It's the Pits (Jeff Holder[USA], 2006)
    Liken Bible Series: Daniel and the Lions ([USA], 2006)
    Belshazzar (Don Kent[France], 2008)
    The Bible: Survival (Crispin Reece; Tony Mitchell; Christopher Spencer[USA/UK], 2013)
    The Book of Daniel (Anna Zielinski[USA], 2013) - pictured above

    Even just a cursory glance of these 30 titles reveals that almost all of them fall into at least one of four basic categories: church-based, animated, silent or opera adaptation. Sadly many of the early, short, silent films are now lost. That leaves a couple of entries from a longer series (Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79) and The Bible(2013)) and the 1953 film Slaves of Babylon.

    I must admit I know very little about Nabucco, Verdi's 1841 Opera which has been filmed at least six different times, or about Belshazzar, Handel's 1744 Oratorio which has been brought to the screen twice.

    I'm about to do a piece on the Lion's Den in film and surprisingly there are significantly fewer films that cover this, given that the story is the most famous of those from the book of Daniel. I suspect this is because many of the films are from the early silent era. Anyway films that specifically cover the Lion's Den scene are:

    Les martyrs chretiens: Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Lucien Nonguet[France], 1905)
    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (Louis Feuillade[France], 1908)

    Daniel (Frederick A. Thomson / Madison C. Peters[USA], 1913)
    Slaves of Babylon (William Castle[USA], 1953)
    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Daniel in the Lions Den* (James L Conway[USA], 1978)
    Animated Stories from the Bible: Daniel (Richard Rich [USA], 1993)
    Testament. The Bible in Animation: Daniel (Lioudmila Koshkina[UK], 1996)
    The Beginners Bible: The Story of Daniel in Lions' Den (Gary Selvaggio, [USA], 1996)
    Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible: Daniel and the Lions' Den (William R. Kowalchuk [USA], 1998)
    Veggie Tales: Where is God when I'm S-S-Scared? ( Phil Vischer/Mike Nawrocki,[USA], 2003)
    Bugtime Adventures: It's the Pits (Jeff Holder[USA], 2006)
    Liken Bible Series: Daniel and the Lions ([USA], 2006)
    The Bible: Survival (Crispin Reece; Tony Mitchell; Christopher Spencer[USA/UK], 2013)
    The Book of Daniel (Anna Zielinski[USA], 2013)

    I suspect my piece will also mention the 2008 Argentinian film Leonera (Lion's Den) which isn't a modernisation, but simply uses the way that the phrase "going into the Lion's Den" has passed into popular parlance.

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    Saturday, August 19, 2017

    Book Review: The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)

    The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)
    Edited by David J. Shepherd

    Routledge, Taylor and Francis (2016)
    292 pages
    61 B/W Illustrations.
    ISBN 978-415741699

    Whilst regular readers will know that I have mentioned and quoted from this book extensively over the last year or so gave my own opinions on the films it covers in my Silent Jesus Films series, I thought a proper review was somewhat overdue.

    Having established himself as the leading expert on Silent Bible films with his 2013 work "The Bible on Silent Film" David J. Shepherd has edited a book with a more specific focus on the major films about Jesus from the first thirty years of the cinema. The book covers thirteen silent Jesus films in depth, giving a chapter to each apart from the two 1920s German films, Der Galiläer and I.N.R.I. (1923) which Reinhold Zwick covers in a single chapter. Shepherd himself provides a chapter on Alice Guy's La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) as well as an introduction and "Final Reflections". The Introduction (pp.1-14) starts with the "ironic" observation of "how early and how frequently Jesus appeared in the cinema of the so-called 'Silent Era'" (p.2) given his reputation as a teacher and the sheer number of his sayings that have been passed down. It continues with a brief historical overview of the portrayal of Jesus across the silent era.

    Before the films themselves, however, there is Timothy Barnard's translation of one of André Gaudreault's contributions to the difficult to obtain "Une Invention du Diable?" (1990), which in this volume's English translation is titled "The Passion of Christ: A Form, a Genre, a Discourse" (p.15-23). Gaudreault considering the very earliest passion play films asks if they are "documentary or fiction?" (p.19) ultimately concluding that they are "neither one nor the other...(but)...overlap considerably" (p.22). The volume from which this paper is taken was a comprehensive collection of the papers from the first international conference of DOMITOR (the International Association to Promote the Study of Early Cinema), the majority of which are in French. Whilst a god deal of it is available on Google Books, the inclusion of an English translation here is much appreciated. It's apt too given many of the papers in the present work originated at an SBL meeting in Amsterdam and an international symposium in Vienna (p.xi).

    The first film to be covered in detail then is La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05) .The 1902-1905 dating is that given by the chapter's authors Alain Boillat and Valentine Robert and it proceeds to present evidence that the popular DVD version which is usually dated as being 1902-1905 was in fact a new version created in 1907. The version examined in this chapter (p.24-59) then was the second of four passion plays by Pathé (p.27), although both version were directed by Ferdinand Zecca (p.36). Boillat and Robert also examine the earlier film's reliance on Gustave Doré's compositions.

    In between the two Pathé/Zecca films however was the release of Alice Guy Blaché's La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) which is covered by Shepherd himself in chapter 3 (p.60-77). Shepherd's main observations here are around the influence of Jacques Tissot's work and, in particular, the film's emphasis on women ("The Gospel According to Alice Guy" as the chapter title has it). This is often done by contrasting the alterations Guy makes to Tissot's compositions or the equivalent scenes in Zecca's films.

    The comparison with Zecca's films is also taken up in the fourth chapter, "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé Frères 1907): The Preservation and Transformation of Zecca's Passion" by Dwight H. Friesen (p.78-97). Friesen argues that the two filmmakers had "noticeably different" (p.88) approaches. Compared to Guy, Zecca was "less natural and more constructed" (p.88) not least because of Guy's use of outdoor locations (p.89). Zecca's later film seems "to contest and react" to Guy's film and even "appropriate" from it on occasion (p.89).

    W. Barnes Tatum's chapter on From the Manger to the Cross(1912) (p.98-110) begins with an assertion that in terms of films about Jesus, "(n)o film from the early silent period was more important" (p.98). Given the success of his book "Jesus at the Movies"1 it's hardly surprising that much of the material here is reworked. There is however expanded material on the making of the film and the cast and crew's trip to Cairo and Jerusalem from New York (and in Henderson Bland's case, London) (p.99).

    The next two chapters, Terry Lindvall's "The Star of Bethlehem (Thanhouser, 1912): The Sacred Story from King Herod to the Crib" (p.111-131) and Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" (p.132-157) cover two of the lesser known films of the era (though I have reviewed them here and here). Noting that the The Star of Bethlehem "did not receive a uniformly stellar reception" (p.126) Lindvall examines how the film attempted to use special effects and star power2 to bolster its appeal; how the film faced criticism, not least from the "self-proclaimed guardian of the textual and aesthetic orthodoxy of sacred film", W. Stephen Bush; and how director Lawrence Marston defended his film by citing his research and use of experts.

    Burnette-Bletsch tackles The Shadow of Nazareth from a different angle, particularly how the film "not only harmonizes but also substantially rewrites the gospel accounts" (p.133). The film, Burnette-Bletsch argues is a "mediated adaptation" of the gospel narratives" because the evidence suggests it is an "unacknowledged cinematic adaptation" of the 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli (p.134). The book had been a "spectacular commercial success" (p.140), indeed Corelli was "the best-selling novelist of her generation" (p.139). The novel drew "upon popular conceptions of Darwinism and Buddhism" as part of a "discussion of the spiritual issues" of the day such her belief in "unlimited opportunity to evolve spiritually" and ultimately "experience spiritual transcendence" (p.143). In contrast, "the film is not concerned with the possibility of redemption, spiritual evolution or transcendence" it "simply uses Jesus and Christian iconography as a culturally shared symbols of a moral universe in which...all of the sinful characters in the film receive the due penalty for their errors" (p.152).

    Pathé's fourth foray into the Passion play tradition is the subject of Jo-Ann Brant's "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1913/14): Pathé’s Inclination to Tell and Maître’s Instinct to Show" (p.158-178). The film not only used the same title as the 1902-05 and 1907 versions, but also maintained a "continuity of appearance" (p.160) with the earlier film. Yet Brant argues that despite the similarities to the 1907 film Maître’s "departures from that film indicate that he has sought to add interest and narrativity...by exploiting deep staging to codify space and by directing our attention away from Jesus to the mise en scène" (p.170). Brant also speculates as to the reasons "why Pathé gave an old look to a new film" (p.161) suggesting that, in part their version had become in some way "authoritative" such that were they "to have departed too radically from the visual canon it had helped to create, it would only have undermined its own hold on the market" (p.162).

    That "old look", however, dated even more quickly than might have been anticipated, with the release of D.W. Griffith's films Judith of Bethulia (1914), Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), the subjects of Richard Walsh's chapter subtitled "Griffith's Talismanic Jesus" (p. 179-199). Looking primarily at the latter two films as well as Ince, Barker and West's Civilization (1916) he notes how Griffith simply uses Jesus as "a means to hallow some characters, (and) to demonize others" (p.192). "Jesus bathes the truly important characters in Griffith's film and film itself in his cultural sanctity." (p.193)

    The same year that Griffith's Intolerance was being unleashed on the the world, Giulio Antamoro's Christus finally "received initial approval from the censors" (p.201). Giuseppe Pucci's "Christus (1916): Italy's First Religious 'Kolossal' by Antamoro and Salvatori" (p.200-210) covers the film's characters and reception and looks at how the film is divided into three 'mysteries', namely those of Jesus' birth, preaching and passion (p.201).

    Of all the films considered in this book perhaps the ones that have ultimately been the most important are Dimitri Buchowetzki's Der Galiläer (1921) and Robert Wiene's I.N.R.I. (1923). Jesus films shape their audience's perceptions such that whilst it would be foolish to suggest that these anti-Semitic Jesus films led to the Holocaust, they doubtless contributed to the cultural demonisation of the Jewish people. As noted above Reinhold Zwick's contribution to the book covers both these films. "Der Galiläer (Express-Film, 1921) and I.N.R.I (Neumann-Film, 1923): The Silence of Jesus in the German Cinema" (p.211-235) covers far more issues than just the anti-Semitism, but nevertheless in several places it refers to issues such as Der Galiläer's "anti-Semitic stereotypes" (p.217) and the bitter "irony that the anti-Jewishness was evidently seen as fully compatible with the aim of restoring the moral reputation of Germany" (p.224). Zwick charts the two films' journeys from stage/page to screen and the "Image of Jesus Christ" that they create. The latter sections break down into "A Man of Few Words", "A Man of (Miraculous) Deeds" before examining how others in the film see Jesus. Zwick includes two "Scene Lists" in his appendices, the second, for I.N.R.I. compares the differing fragments from archives in Berlin and Gemona.

    Whilst Buchowetzki was working in Germany Carl Theodor Dreyer was directing Blade Af Satans Bog (Leaves from Satan's Book, 1921). "Dreyer had been so impressed by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916)...that it served as a source of inspiration" (p.237) to the extent that it copied its four-differing-stories structure, though it did not intertwine them in the same complicated fashion. "Dreyer was not happy with the first episode of Leaves" calling his portrayal of Jesus "'a bad tailor's dummy of Christ'" (p.243) and deciding to pursue another film about Jesus. Caroline Vander Stichele uses her chapter "Leaves from Satan's Book, Nordisk, 1921) and Dreyer's Script Jesus of Nazareth (1950): The Jewishness of Jesus" (p.236-255) to both examine the original film, but also to compare it to the script that resulted from his dissatisfaction. The script has survived but as Stichele points out "we are left to imagine how he might have directed it. In a sense both are 'silent' for in neither film nor script can we 'hear' the characters."(p.236) Whilst it's an interesting concept Stichele devotes more attention to the latter film even though it is appears, to me at least, somewhat outside the rest of the book's thrust.

    The final film to be covered is DeMille's famous The King of Kings (1927) which is tackled by Vivienne Westbrook (p.256-270). Westbrook's focus is particularly on the film's intertitles and his "editing, abbreviating, elaborating, re-ordering and even combining biblical texts (rather than simply quoting them ) to suit his purposes" (p.269). It's a detailed and careful study that does much to highlight how much silent film evolved in its thirty-year run from primitive title cards announcing the scene in the earliest films, to succinct explanations or lines of dialogue, replete with biblical quotations and background images by DeMille's day.

    Shepherd's "Final Reflections" (p. 271-280) not only provides a neat summary of the chapters that have gone before, but also continues on to Duvivier's Golgotha (1935), the first major film of the sound era. Shepherd makes the point that whilst Duvivier finally had "the capacity to allow audiences...to actually hear for the first time...the words of Jesus", he "chose instead to focus his film on the Passion, in which Jesus has far less to say" (p.276). Golgotha "invites viewers to marvel more at the spectacle of Jesus's silence than his newly audible words" (p.278) just as silent era Jesus films had prioritised spectacle over almost anything else.

    Shepherd's reflections also do a great deal to gather the book's various straws together. One of the undoubted strengths of the volume is the way it brings to light lesser known productions and using them to fill gaps in the previously patchy narrative of the earliest era of the Bible on Film. Inevitably this means that the better known films are covered in a somewhat different manner to some of the more obscure titles, which the authors had to introduce and describe as well as analyse. However, whilst some diversity is clearly essential sometimes it feels like the inconsistency between chapters is too diverse. It's a minor point that will probably only bother those reading the book in a relatively short space of time. Also, the chapter order is occasionally a little odd e.g. Pucci's chapter on Christus would have been better before Intolerance, but that really is a minor nitpick which just goes to demonstrate how well I think of the book as a whole.

    Otherwise, "The Silents of Jesus", is an excellent and most welcome addition to the growing library of books on the gospels on film. Often with multi-authored books such as this one or two essays don't quite meet the mark, but here they are all well worth reading. In addition to the text the wealth of images that are included make many vital points far more clearly than would have been possible without them. Furthermore not only is it packed full of insight and good scholarship, it's an enjoyable book to read, one which shines a light onto a world which we're only just re-discovering.

    1 - Tatum's book is the only book on the subject to gain a third edition, as far as I am aware.
    2 - Yes, I went there. But Lindvall started it.

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    Friday, August 18, 2017

    The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

    Being a fan of Rossellini's The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, a regular viewer of the BBC's Versailles and having previously enjoyed director Albert Serra's El cant dels ocells (Birdsong), I've been keen to see his The Death of Louis XIV for sometime. And then there's that Truffaut box set I just bought, laden with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's earlier work.

    Unsurprisingly Serra's take on Louis lies far closer to Rossellini's version of the story than the BBC's. The slow, long takes and minimal drama that so typified Birdsong and much of Rossellini's later work is on display again here. The opening few scenes show Louis struggling to be taken even to different locations in the palace. Thereafter, he is confined to his bed as he makes his slow transition from this life to the next. France's leading physicians, and the odd quack, try their remedies in an attempt to fight off the gangrene that has set in, but it's all to no avail.

    Whilst this is undoubtedly one film that doesn't require spoiler warnings, it's interesting to consider, briefly the other ways in which this chapter in history could have been filmed. Rather than confining itself almost solely to Louis' quarters, with him present in almost every shot, another telling of the story could have focussed on the political jostlings going on in and around court; or the reaction in the surrounding kingdoms. Here however the emphasis is almost entirely on Louis, and particularly his failing body. The Sun King is revealed to be as human as the rest of us after all. Death overtakes him as it overtakes us all. In many ways the film is not so dissimilar to The Death of Mr Lazarescu or The Barbarian Invasions, only with a greater audience. The kingdom and the world beyond may be holding its breath, but all that matters is one man's life is coming to an end. It's a story told too in minute detail from a linger shot of a tray of false eyes, to Louis' slowly blackening toes, to the increasing grimness of his servants faces as they gradually begin to realise nothing can be done.

    The film's other notable feature is its lighting and cinematography, which gorgeously recreates the atmosphere of the era's Baroque paintings. Serra, and his cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, manage to strike a delicate balance between the grimness of portraying death in close up and crating beautiful art. It would be easy for one element to overpower the other, to prettify the reality of death, or to cram the film with grotesque imagery. The end result never lets us forget that Louis was both an ordinary person and an exceptional one.


    Thursday, August 17, 2017

    Chasing the Star (2017)

    Having had only the most limited theatrical release back in April, Brett Miller's Chasing the Star comes out on DVD next month, several weeks ahead of Sony's CGI animation The Star hitting cinemas in November. Miller's film is the second in the Quest Trilogy, a series of three films produced by Collective Development and written by DJ Perry. But whereas Perry also starred in the trilogy's opening entry, 40 Nights, here Perry takes a back seat, leaving Garry Nation, Randy Spence and Bello Pizzimenti to take the roles of the magi, and Ralph Lister to play a ripely paranoid Herod. Also starring are Taymour Ghazi and Rance Howard who share the role of Satan.

    Keen eyed observers will have noticed the absence from the above cast list of the names of actors playing Mary and Joseph: The film's most daring move is to skip over the birth of Jesus entirely and just to focus on the stories of the three magi. Such a move does two things. Firstly it steers the film away from the schmaltzy and sentimental moment that so typifies films about the birth of Jesus. This suits Perry and Miller's agenda down to the ground. Just as 40 Nights presented a tougher, earthier Christ, this film aims for a similar aesthetic. A story about the three kings, visiting Herod's palace could present an opportunity for kitsch and bling on an epic scale. Here however, the film roots the Magi more thoroughly in Zoroastrianism than any previous film and it strips down potential gaudy elements to the extent that even Herod doesn't even wear a crown. Like 40 Nights the film is more about psychology than pageantry.

    The second thing such a move achieves is shine a spotlight on a new area. Shorn of the traditional story's natural climax, the film culminates in the magi's final encounter with Gabriel. On a plot level this enables them to escape Herod's traps, but more fundamentally it brings closure to the magi's own stories and a redemption that is not based so much on pilgrimage as coming to terms with the past. There are two other notable films about the Magi, Ermanno Olmi's Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking, 1982) and Albert Serra's El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2010), but whereas those films were primarily concerned with the journey, Chasing the Star is more about the characters making it. There's an emphasis on dialogue, with a multitude of scenes where the characters just talk to one another. It's a film almost about what happens in-between the gaps in the narrative, than about the story itself.

    This is underscored by the film's irregular timeline. Whilst its primary narrative about the magi's journey to see Jesus moves forward chronologically, it is peppered with flashbacks to the magi's previous lives. All three men have significant issues with their past. Melchior, the eldest, was orphaned at a young age. His younger colleagues had very different experiences with their fathers. Gaspar's father pushed him into the priesthood ("I am my father's Isaac, but with no ram to replace me") with no thought for the feelings of love. Balthazar's wanted to keep him close rather than let his son fulfil his priestly ambitions.

    Given many of writer and co-producer Perry's previous work, it might be tempting to discount the film as just a Christian movie. But that would be a mistake as Chasing the Star avoids the major pitfalls of the typical Christian movie. Instead, as with 40 Nights, there's real filmmaking craftsmanship on display. Miller came into directing having previously been a cinematographer and it really shows in the quality of the image, composition, lighting, filters and overall look of the film. Dennis Therrian's score enhances the film's mysterious feel.

    No less importantly, it avoids the trap of forcing it's "message". In fact it's not even clear that it has 'a message'. It's certainly not a sermon wrapped in an all too thin and transparent veil. The filmmakers don't seem to be pushing an agenda.

    Instead the film is happy to introduce us to its characters and help us get to know them better. It's a story most know from a very young age, but few consider the real people behind it and the choices they made, and the lives they left behind, to try to reach something beyond themselves.

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    Saturday, August 12, 2017

    25 things to look out for on the blog

    I've decided it might be fun to give you a little run down of what the next few months (or maybe years) are going to have to have in stock. I usually resist this kind of nailng your colours to the mast exercise, but sometimes it's quite helpful and I htink now might be one of those times. If I'm ever going to get my book written I should probably get on with it. Plus there are other obligations I have to meet and things I want to cover, not least the three films based on the gospels that are due out before the end of the year. So here's a list of them, either to whet your appetite, or to help you steer clear for a while...

    Firstly there are 18 films

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)
    Salome (1922)
    Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
    Samson and Delilah (1922)
    Lot in Sodom (1933)
    The Greatest Commandment (1939)
    Salome (1953)
    Barabbas (1961)
    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament) (1962)
    I Grandi Condottieri (Samson and Gideon) (1965)
    Jesus, Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Moses und Aron (1973)
    Jacob and Joseph (1974)
    Wholly Moses (1981)
    St. John in Exile (1986)
    Book of Life (1998)
    Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)
    Noah (2014)
    Chasing the Star (2017)
    Mary Magdalene (2017)
    The Star (2017)

    Then there are three series I'll be continuing to dip into

    The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79)
    A.D. The Bible Continues (2015)
    Pioneers of African-American Cinema

    Then a few books

    "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema" - David Shepherd et al.
    "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" - Richard A. Lindsay
    "Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed" - Carol A. Hebron

    Lastly there's a piece on the Lion's Den that I need to write as well.

    This ridiculous optimist in me likes to think I could get this all done by New Year. More realistically this list is going to take a while to get through and other things will emerge before it's done. Perhaps Christmas 2018 is a more realistic target. Still it's good to have something to aim at...

    Wednesday, August 09, 2017

    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914)

    The story of Joseph is one that's never really benefited from a major Bible film, though the Joseph entry in The Bible Collection did win an Emmy back in 1995. For me, this is because the two climaxes to the story - Joseph's elevation to the role of Egypt's second in command, and his reunification with his father - have never been adequately fine-tuned and balanced. The literary version uses Joseph's sudden promotion as something of a mechanism to get the children of Israel into Egypt, the end of a lengthy prologue before the real story of the Hebrews starts in Exodus chapter 1.

    But that doesn't cut it for a movie version of Joseph's life, so films have tended to be caught between the peaking-too-early drama of Joseph's elevation from prison to governor and the actual ending but hard to develop moment when Jacob and his son are reunited. In between the two lies a complicated narrative where the brothers traipse back and forth between Canaan and Egypt, having tests/tricks played on them by their little brother before he finally gets his Dad and full brother Benjamin back by his side. For me, it's this that tends to kill the narrative. It's no coincidence that the most successful dramatisation of the story is Rice and Lloyd-Weber's musical Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat which compresses this final act so that Joseph's elevation by Pharoah and his reunification with his father are in far closer proximity.

    At three and a half reels Thanhouser's Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) was relatively long for its day, but is short compared to later versions of the story meaning that whilst most of the to-ing and fro-ing is included, it doesn't take that long overall, even if the love Jacob has for his lost son is largely underdeveloped. This is not helped by the fact that the film's intertitles - in the version that remains on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel at least - tend to be lengthy scriptural quotations rather than something more emotionally stirring. That said, in places the biblical version of the story does contain some good lines, most notably Joseph's "lift up your head" pun when interpreting his fellow inmates' dreams, which the film wisely retains.

    But whilst the dialogue is rather stodgy, the filmmakers do manage to sex things up a bit, mainly in the form of Potiphar's wife. Here, she's a character I feel rather sorry for. The Joseph story is often seen as the climax of the story of the patriarch's Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but this story is a reminder of the other type of patriarchy. Mrs Potiphar is cast as the villain of the piece and the archetype for the seductress attempting to derail the virtuous hero from his quest. It's no coincidence that Potiphar's wife is the last woman encountered in the book of Genesis, forming a matching pair with the first woman of the book, Eve.

    Two points in this regard are particularly interesting. The first is the fact that whilst the wife has tended to be portrayed as am older cougar type, preying on her young buxom servant, here she is very attractive, particularly when compared to some of the actresses that were playing other supposed biblical beauties such as Judith or the Queen of Sheba at the time. She is clearly taken with Joseph right from her first sighting of him in the slave market (above) where she nudges her husband to make sure he buys him.

    The other is later in the film, when she is shamed before Pharoah for her actions. This is a rare insertion into the text, but one that highlights that gulf between her and Joseph that now exists. Joseph is the victor and it is lauded over his former accuser. And this, perhaps inadvertently, reminds us that history, even biblical history, is usually written by the victors. Ultimately Joseph triumphs over Potiphar's wife and accordingly the Bible's account of what happened very much flatters and favours him rather than her (she started it, he resisted, she falsely accused him). It's not inconceivable is it that what really happened was less black and white.

    The other thing that is striking in this film is the use of dream sequences and flashbacks. Whilst this was hardly unknown in cinema at this stage, it was realtively innovative for a biblical film. The first occasion of this is in the dungeon when Pharoah's cup-bearer tells Joseph his dream. The sequence is hardly elaborate, it's a close up of the vine which, after what seems like quite a while, the cup bearer enters to pick some clusters of grapes. Yet the closeness of the shot and the inital absence of humans in it gives it a distinctly different feel from the rest of the film. It feels more credibly dreamy than many of the dream sequences that are produced today, perhaps because it is so simple and primitive.

    Not disimilarly is the moment we witness a flashback which the camera indicates is taking place inside Joseph's head. Again the sequence is simple and Joseph's recollection of his father's love is far from overwrought. Instead the naturalistic, low key acting and the simplicity of the shot are the most emotionally true moment of the whole film. The moment is recalled again in the final shot as with the family reunited Jacob's rests with his son's arm around him as if for all the suffering the pair of them have been through, it's Jacob's that has caused the greatest heartache. The point of the biblical narrative maybe to manouver him into the land of Egypt, but as far as the film is concerned it's a simpler story of a man who is finally reunited with the son he so deeply loved.

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    Thursday, August 03, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 2

    This is part 2 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    As I noted in my initial post in this series A.D. doesn't rush straight into the book of Acts in the manner that I, at least, expected. This episode, for example, is the second in a series of only ten, and yet we've still not got into Acts yet - this episode ends with the Ascension. Whilst I imagine the filmmakers had hoped for further series, A.D. - The Bible Continues didn't; NBC cancelled it July 2015 and talk of a new channel which would carry content such as this has not (yet?) emerged. So for now the series looks to be left high and dry in Acts 11.

    This episode is particularly strange in this respect. There's a great deal of weight put on the episode in Matthew 28 with the soldiers at the tomb and an early example of attempting to "control the narrative". Guards are dragged to and forth, examined and cross-examined, beaten and eventually murdered whilst Pilate and Caiaphas scheme. It all becomes a bit tiresome, with the only point of interest the way that Pilate gradually turns from the noble and indecisive-but-thoughtful leader of episode 1 to the throat-slitting, blood-thirsty tyrant he becomes here. Caiaphas eventually becomes appalled by the man he is doing business with, although it will be interesting to see how this turns out when Saul arrives on the scene.

    Meanwhile though Jesus is still around making resurrection appearances. It's strange that some of plays second fiddle to the film's zealous attempts to hammer home Matthew's apologetic concerning the guarding of the tomb, to the extent that it skips over Luke's story of Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus. This has proved popular with other filmmakers and has led to some interesting interpretations.

    That said we do get John's story of the appearance on the shores of Galilee. This was the episode's high point for me. The beach that Jesus appears on is busy relative to how it's portrayed in the handful of other films that include this episode, where it is often deserted other than Jesus and the disciples. Given the time of day I think the approach here is a bit more likely and whilst it loses something of the intimacy of a meeting alone, I think it emphasises Jesus being someone who was out among the individual people and like the relatively natural way in which it's portrayed.

    If that's the best scene, it's equally clear which the worst scene and for the same kind of reason. The Ascension is something that is relatively rare, at least as something that is visualised rather than something that happens almost off screen. Relatively few films have portrayed this, though notable depictions include Pathé's Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1907), where Jesus is hoisted up to painted, hardboard clouds; the Jesus film (1979) where we get Jesus's point of view as the crowd disappears below him; Dayasagar/ Karunamayudu (1978) where Jesus becomes a massive figure against the night sky; and the flashing light disappearance trick of The Miracle Maker (2000). Here it's poorly executed CGI, which will only get worse as the film ages, and took me right out of the film. It's typical of these two series use of special effects - rather than doing something simple their budget could stretch to, they went for something spectacular that it couldn't.

    That said I'm kind of relieved to see the back of this episode's Jesus. Despite hanging around for two episodes the filmmakers haven't given him much to do, other than occasionally turning up smiling. Their interest mainly seems to lie in the fact that he is still around rather than in the person himself. It's not helped by the aesthetics. Whilst the dark-haired Jesus here is better than the blond from the original The Bible (2013) series, his look is far too bearded-Chippendale for my tastes. There's an attempt to roughen him up a little round the edges, but he's all oiled muscles, perfect teeth and shampoo-advert hair.

    However it's not just the visuals that are problematic, some of the dialogue in this episode is particularly poor. "Stay in the water like the eel you are" is one of the finer examples of bizarre phrases that feels neither historical nor modern day. In the opposite corner - dialogue that is meant to sound profound, but is actually pretty empty - was this: "We found nothing...and everything."

    In the next episode I'm hoping we get as far as Pentecost, either way I guess Peter will be the main character.  This is definitely a good thing as Adam Levy's performance so far has stood out in comparison to many of the others, and whilst this should be welcomed as a positive thing, it doesn't look too good if a humble fisherman is outshining the son of God incarnate.