• 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, December 23, 2017

    25 Things Revisited

    Back in August I declared my intentions for 25 Things to Look out for on the Blog. I've been cracking on with those, although a few other items have snuck onto the agenda and so, as Christmas is a time for end-of-term reports, I thought it was about time I reflected on the progress that's been made.

    18 films
    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) [done]
    Salome (1922)
    Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
    Samson and Delilah (1922)
    Lot in Sodom (1933) [done]
    The Great Commandment (1939) [done]
    Salome (1953)
    Barabbas (1961) [done]
    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) [done]
    Noah (2014) [done]
    Chasing the Star (2017) [done]
    The Star (2017) [done]
    Mary Magdalene (2018)

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

    3 books
    "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema" - David Shepherd et al. [done]
    "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

    ...and lastly...
    ...there's a piece on the Lion's Den in film. [done]

    I make that 9&1/2; out of 25. Not brilliant, but a good start. It's worth pointing out in defence of my slowish progress that Mary Magdalene has now been moved to 2018 and the research for a couple of these is well underway. Over those 4 months I've also managed to review the following (which probably should have been on the original list):

    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (1905)
    La Sacra Bibbia (1920)
    Greaser's Palace (1972)
    The Nativity (1978)
    Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (1986)
    Moses und Aron (2010)
    Left Behind (2014)
    mother! (2017)

    My next target is to cover Hal Hartley's Book of Life (1998). I figure as it's a New Year's Eve film (for the ultimate New Year, I suppose) then I should try and get it done by then. Hopefully for these next few months - particularly now I've covered most of the films I should probably have included in the first place - I'll stick a bit better to the plan. That said, there's already the need to cover Paul, Apostle of the Christ when it's released in the spring.

    Saturday, December 16, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 5

    This is part 5 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    Having enjoyed episode 4 of A.D. The Bible Continues more than I expected I was kinda keen to watch this episode. Perhaps that led to heightened expectations, but if so, they were not fulfilled. The disappointment set in straight away with the fallout from the last episode's Ananias and Sapphira incident. Where the last episode featured a level of ambiguity, shock and even a degree of horror in proceedings, all that gets quickly mopped up. Peter is entirely cleared of culpability and the blame is laid firmly at God's door. The question of how a God of love could commit such an act is raised, ever so briefly, but it's quickly flitted over and swiftly brushed under the (historically appropriate) rug. Even the thought that this issue might be a serious concern for some of these believers seems to be overlooked. Ultimately it not only fails to portray the fear that the believers felt, but, at the other end of the scale, fails to present a response that seems consistent with either how they would have felt about it, nor mirrors what it's modern day audience might feel.

    One strange detail that becomes more apparent in this episode is that the early Christians seem to be living in a large camp. There doesn't seem to be any real precedence for this. These chapters of Acts (4-7) are set generally in, and perhaps around Jerusalem. There's even a reference to them being together in Solomon’s Portico, which was close to the temple. That said the idea of such a gradually increasing camp evokes the various Occupy camps that sprung up in 2011, which fits with a community where "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions" (Acts 4:32).

    The Stephen character, who we only met for the first time in the previous episode, soon becomes this one's focus. It's pretty clear from all of these early appearances that he's a hothead who has something of a martyr complex. In the last episode he pretty needlessly stood up to Roman soldiers, and here he's disappointed to be asked to "look after the camp"  - presumably referring to how he's first introduced in the Bible as someone picked to "wait on tables" (Acts 6:2-5). Stephen makes a point of the excellence of his training, and that he can speak four languages, arrogantly arguing he's "meant to preach". The foreshadowing here is too over-done.

    The second major weakness comes with the climax of the attempted assassination of Pilate story-line. As far as I know there's no evidence of this incident, so whilst it certainly not unlikely, the subplot's continuation over three episodes feels ever so dragged out. at the end of it all it's difficult to really figure how it has moved things on. It does end with a curious moment of interfaith harmony as Peter and Caiaphas end up doing an acapella duet of Psalm 69. The singing is a little out of tune, which is a nice touch, and the two men, for moment, see eye to eye. But then Peter turns it into an opportunity to preach the name of Jesus and Caiaphas has him arrested, allowing Stephen to escape back to tell the others.

    When the others turn up to help Peter, they too are arrested and we get the first of the miraculous escapes from prison (Acts 5:19-20). This done particularly crassly. The angel - who as with previous angels in this series is needlessly clad in armour - neatly stays still under a white spotlight whilst the rest of the prison stays fairly dark. The padlocks zing themselves off, and there's far too much glowing and smoking, but I suppose I should be pleased that at least he doesn't feel the need to chop through all the guards to lead his wards to freedom.

    Peter senses that they are to return to the temple and so the group end up preaching there again, this time (again in keeping with Acts 5) they end up before the council and Caiaphas is about to have them executed when Gamaliel steps in and offers his wisdom that if their movement is not from God  it will whither out but if it is from God they will not be able to stop it. I guess Christians and atheists will have quite different takes on this passage, but after 18 months of Brexit and Trump, Gamaliel's wisdom does not hold quite the same appeal it used to have.

    The result of Gamliel's pragmatic 'tolerance' is a fairly brutal flogging, with an odd configuration of whipping posts that is a little too obviously arranged for the cameras. The flogging seems both inspired by that of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), but is also a little more restrained. It's one of the rare places that the violence in this series and its forerunner The Bible (2013) makes me actually think more deeply about something, rather than just feeling like it's ramped up to provide entertainment.

    Whilst the flogging leads Peter to a moment of introspection, Stephen is incensed and marches off to confront the Jewish council. He argues vehemently with Caiaphas, but it is an angry mob that drags him off while he's still yelling out lines from Acts 7. It's all a bit different to how it happens in the text with Stephen "full of grace" and the "appearance of an angel" nevertheless his passion here is an interesting take from the more placid character of my imagination. Either way, it's the same grim ending, which seems all the more brutal by the fact that he is tied to a post and so unable to bury his head. Again the violence here is justified and again it makes me feel a little differently about its source material. For me, it raises an interesting question: Why, given the end result is the same, is it more uncomfortable to see someone stoned to death if they can't bury their head.

    And so, with this episode having picked up the pace a little, we arrive at the start of Acts 8. Having recapped the end of the gospels and taken its time to get here, we finally get a glimpse of Saul who's role is pronounced, but rather awkward. I guess it's not difficult to predict what will be happening in the next episode.


    Wednesday, December 13, 2017

    The Nativity (1978)

    The demise of the biblical epic in the 1960s saw adaptation of the Bible moving instead onto television. With budgets greatly reduced the spectacular aspects of the epic were less affordable resulting in the Californian desert typically standing in for the Holy Land, impressive sets being kept to a minimum and the cast of thousands being downsized. Yet through this the polished nature of the epic nature remained. The grimy 'realism' that typifies modern epics had not yet been conceived and so viewed today, these TV epics, with their overly shampooed hair, soft focus and preponderance of fair skin, appear hopelessly anachronistic.

    The Nativity (1978) starring a twenty year old Madeleine Stowe as Mary and featuring John Shea's debut performance as Joseph, is just such a film. Aside from Jesus' parents the rest of the cast is packed with famous British actors: Leo McKern as Herod the Great, driven mad by the his former wife Mariamme's betrayal; Kate O'Mara as Salome, just not the one usually associated with the Herods; and John Rhys Davies as the Nestor, one of a trio of Herod's advisers who end up on a strange sort of hunt for a coming messiah.

    The film starts in the court of Herod the Great (Leo McKern) as he bemoans and the lack of love his people feel for him. One of its strengths is the way it emphasises the Jewishness of this story and its main protagonists, and the antagonism between the ordinary people and the ruling elite. There are various references to crucified wannabe messiahs or defeated zealots and Herod worries about the threat posed by his numerous opponents.

    Most strikingly there is a good deal of effort to portray Mary and Joseph as a typical, first-century, Jewish couple. The first scene featuring Mary and Joseph has her carrying a menorah candlestick and Joseph climbs onto a flat roof. Mary's uncle wears Jewish skull cap and shawl and discusses the law and when the two become betrothed it's clear that even if the customs displayed are not necessarily accurate, the filmmakers are certainly trying. Elsewhere they emphasise that Mary's parents have expectations for her marriage that are different from their audience. Mary's mother had been hoping she might marry "a prince". Furthermore, Joseph is considered too old for Mary - even though age gap is not particularly huge. (At the time of release Shea was 29 compared to Stowe's 20).

    Not dissimilarly, whilst Joseph and Mary are apparently in love before their betrothal, this is meant to be a secret and she frets about the two of them being seen talking and him giving her gifts. Yet at the same time the holy couple also defy the conventions of their day, and perhaps also our own. Joseph, for example, is expecting a messiah whose deliverance from Rome will not be in the style of the zealots. Even more striking in this respect is when Mary tends to the needs of a man being crucified, climbing a ladder to stroke his face. It's an act of both compassion and defiance, suggesting both Mary's love and her strength.

    All of this happens in the first half of the film, allowing it to fully develop the characters of Mary and Joseph before wading in to the biblical material. The annunciation doesn't occur until 40 minutes in to the film, not far off halfway. When it does come there is no angel, no disembodied voice, indeed there is not even a bright shining light. Mary is on her own by a remote-ish river and we see her face several times in extreme close-up. We also see a few shots taken from a low angle with Mary's face obstructing the sun and hear a suitably "oooh-ing" choir. Having heard, and responded to, God's vision, Mary lies down and goes to sleep. It's Joseph who wakes her and she recounts what happened as if recounting a dream. Indeed, that is what Joseph takes it to be. The low-angled shot is repeated later in the film when Joseph gets his own moment of revelation.

    The ambiguity surrounding the annunciation scene is absent however from the scenes where Mary visits Elizabeth and Zachariah. Mary is already aware of the unusual nature of Elizabeth's pregnancy. She even refers to it when trying to convince Joseph her experience was more than a dream. But the usual moments of Elizabeth;s unborn child jumping in the womb is still present, as are brief snippets of their conversation from Luke's Gospel. Additionally, as per the traditional story Zechariah's is  unable to speak, something Elizabeth jokes about in a line reminiscent of this year's The Star ("Sometimes I think it's improvement").

    All of these typical scenes are accompanied by the rather odd sub-plot involving three of Herod's advisors, Diomedes, Nestor and Flavius. Having taken it upon themselves to investigate the rumours of a coming messiah they tour round Judea meeting Joseph in one location, the wise men in another, and conveniently passing through the shepherds' field just as the angel is appearing. Spurious sub-plots are not uncommon in biblical films, but the way this one gradually increases it's focus onto Rhys-Davies and his colleagues seems particularly strange.

    Two moments stand out in this respect. The first is a weird conversation with the magi about the potential risk from Herod. Worst of all however is the climax of the film which sees neither shepherds or wise men making it on time, but does show Diomedes, Nestor and Flavius arriving in time not only be the first to witness the new king, but also to tip-off his father Joseph than the bright star that led them to the stable might be noticeable enough to also draw Herod's attention to it. Ordinarily this might not seem so very strange - the parallelism between these Roman wise men and the ones from the East might even work under other circumstances - but this is how the film ends.

    So whilst I and many others think of this version of the Nativity as the Madeleine Stowe one, in the end she is nudged to the edge of the stage by her co-stars. It would be almost ten years before her breakthrough in Stakeout and fifteen before her acclaimed performances in Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). For his part, Shea eventually went on to star in another film about someone from another world coming to earth as a baby as  Lex Luthor in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997).


    Saturday, December 02, 2017

    Mary Magdalene gets a trailer and a website

    We've known that a film about Mary Magdalene was in the works since FilmChat/Deadline broke the story in January 2016, but until now there's been very little to go on. For a while now we've known that Rooney Mara had the title part and that Joaquin Phoenix was playing Jesus, but aside from the various photos of them smoking on set, the filmmakers have been keeping things relatively tight.

    Now, however, there's an official website for the film and a trailer, which you can see below (click for HD/fullscreen)

    The website is fairly barebones for now, but the trailer shows us quite a lot. For a start Phoenix's portrayal of Jesus looks like it will be one of the most interesting we have seen. Aside from his acting pedigree, there's also the rather weathered look of his preacher from Nazareth. Historically, actors playing Jesus were often made as photogenic as possible - even getting Jeffrey Hunter to shave his armpits in King of Kings (1961). More recently there's been a tendency towards more grittier productions, especially since The Passion of the Christ (2004), but Jesus, bloodied face aside, has still tended to have good teeth and skin. In comparison, Phoenix's Jesus looks well worn. At 41, Phoenix is quite a bit older than Jesus probably was, but the harshness of the lifestyle, probably evens this out a bit. Hence we get a Jesus who looks like he has experienced the ups and downs of real life.

    We also see a lot of images of Jesus smiling, but not always winningly, as well as a good range of other emotions, including fear and anger. Various films have focused strongly on one of these before, or incorporated several of them in a more toned down form, but this seems a very emotional Jesus, but also one who is, not necessarily intended to appeal to audiences enough to carry the film. The real star here - at least if we take the film's title seriously, is Mary Magdalene.

    I know far less about Rooney Mara than I do about Phoenix, but her figure here seems far more photogenic and appealing than Phoenix. I'm not quite sure photogenic is the right word here as it suggests a degree of personal taste. Put it this way, swap their costumes for 21st century office attire and it's clear who would fit in more naturally.

    That said even Mary's clothing here gives a suggestion that her character is wealthier than most of the other characters, and certainly compared to Jesus. If I'm right on this then it touches on a key fact about Mary that tends to be overlooked. The main piece of background information we have about her, from Luke 8:1-3, is that she was one of the group of women who funded Jesus and his followers. In fact, her name comes first amongst those benefactors, and it would not be inconceivable that this meant she was the highest of his donors. In this light the smearing of her as a prostitute, seems like an almost deliberate attempt to bury an uncomfortable fact.

    The other piece of information this passage gives us is that "seven demons had gone out" from her. Given its run-time, the trailer goes into this relatively deeply. The first part of the trailer includes a voice over where one male character says "You have brought shame on our family", followed by another man saying "there's something unnatural inside you". We then see several shots of Jesus and Mary with Jesus saying "Your family says you battle with the demons", Mary saying "If there's a demon in me it's always been there" then another shot of a smiling Jesus reassuring her that "There are no demons here".

    But what follows is also more interesting. There are apparent conflicts with a seemingly resentful Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), reminiscent of Abel Ferrara's Mary (2005) and the non-canonical Gospel of Mary. There is also a scene where Jesus seems to be encouraging Mary to carry out baptisms. Most interestingly of all, Mary asks Jesus "Is that how it feels to be one with God" and Jesus replies that no-one has ever asked about how it feels. None of this is really that unexpected given this is supposed to be a film about Mary, though it looks like it will be a more interesting and self-respectful portrayal than the one we find in Magdalena Released From Shame (2006). Be prepared for a string of stories about a feminist Mary Magdalene between now and the film's release.

    Speaking of which it looks like the film will be release over here in the UK on the 16th March, Australia on 22nd March and the US on March 30 (Good Friday). There are a few more details on the official website, but it's fairly sparse at the moment.
    HT Peter Chattaway.

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