• 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


    Friday, March 30, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 10

    One of the delights of the 1985 series A.D. was the way the mix of biblical, historical and fictional material was blended together and allowed minor biblical characters to be developed a little bit, even if that was, at times, largely fictional. Early episodes of this version of A.D. The Bible Continues (a.k.a. A.D. Kingdom and Empire) didn't really seem interested in this approach. Taking the story right back to the crucifixion there were a host of male apostles, women followers and backers, and authority figures that needed introducing.

    Recently, however, this facet of the series has really started to develop and, in particular, it has come to the fore in this tenth episode as the apostles who dominate the early stages of Acts (and who are known from their time with Jesus) begin to fade into the background a little.

    Most notably for this episode is the introduction of James who, at the start of the episode, rather burst onto the scene a little like he does in Acts. The episode actually starts with a flash back as a way of introducing us to James as the brother of Jesus. Whilst some scholars speculate that this James had already been part of the twelve, this is not the case here where he is introduced as a new character. There's something a little off with the way he seemingly has access to the power structures in Jerusalem that the other apostles don't, even though he is the brother of an executed criminal and of no higher social class than Peter and the others, but nevertheless, it goes some way to explaining how James suddenly seems to come to prominence in Acts having played a minor, and perhaps slightly antagonistic, role in Luke and the other gospels.

    Meanwhile Caiaphas, fearing - once again - that things might blow-up, is desperately trying to persuade Saul to tone it down a bit. He's not alone. Whilst Peter and the others largely recognise there's a certain something about him, fear he is putting their reputation, if not their lives at risk. Simon the Zealot is the most vocally unhappy with this and after a few complaints, both in the last episode and this, he accepts a meeting with Levi the leader of his old resistance fighter colleagues.. Simon seems to be trying to have it both ways, seemingly wanting to silence Saul, but without ever telling anyone to kill him This is slightly odd as the pre-Christian Saul most likely had zealot connections of his own. When he describes his "zeal" in Philippians 3:6 this is likely not just a metaphor. Like the zealots he saw people hindering the coming of God's kingdom and saw violence as a way to further the coming kingdom.

    Other minor characters also get a good outing here as well. Joanna, to whom we were reintroduced in Episode 8, has now led another servant called Tabitha to become a follower of Jesus, but she's barely just prayed what, one assumes, is meant to be a version of the sinners prayer, when Claudia and Herodias burst in. Herodias is incensed and ignores Claudia's attempt to deal with the affair in a low key manner. She takes the issue to her husband in front of Pilate. The timing for poor Tabitha could not have been worse. Pilate, Herod and a high ranking Ethiopian official have become locked in a testosterone-charged struggle to see who can make their kingdom look most impressive. In the cold light of day it's a little silly, but deserves credit for depicting some of the dynamics of the power issues in that region at that time. Ethiopia was not subject to Roman rule, indeed at the time of these events its own Aksumite Empire was just starting to gain a footing in the country itself. Presumably then there was an uneasy trading relationship with Rome, both keen to project their power and independence to dissuade the other from attack whilst also recognising the mutual benefit of trade. Pilate invites Herod along, but it's really only to show how his Rome has subjugated Judea's king.

    So when Herodias arrives announcing a Christian amongst her staff, Pilate sees it as an affront to his posturing and has her flogged. The scene is reasonably disturbing - we're used to see men flogged in historical dramas but not women but is that 19th-21st century piety or a historical reality (I have no idea if women were flogged, even occasionally, like this, but it's quite possible they were). Tabitha survives badly scarred, and is secretly ushered off somewhere. I have a feeling that she'll be popping up in Philippi, if this series ever gets there...

    Also, lined up to appear in future episodes is the Ethiopian official (not sure I'm keen on the traditional use of "eunuch" in his title). In terms of biblical chronology he should already have had his encounter with Philip, but I guess that will feature in the next episode. Things have been nicely set out here though. The official has appeared in all his grandeur in Jerusalem which has left the ruling Roman powers feeling threatened enough to search his party upon entry and report it to Pilate, but canny enough to know they need to play things sensibly, hence Pilate's dinner party invite. The official visits Jerusalem's temple. He calls himself a "Humble believer" and he and Pilate discuss him celebrating Yom Kippur. When he meets Caiaphas, the high priest gives him a copy of the scriptures as a gift, which nicely sets things up for a later episode.

    What all of this does is give a very positive portrayal of Africa which is still all too rare in western output. The Ethiopian official cuts an impressive figure, and his self-assurance, wealth and confidence in how he should be treated, do much to speak of the magnificence of his country and of his continent in general. Modern times have very much encouraged westerners to look down on Ethiopia, and patronising stereotypes persist. (This is not helped by the enduring popularity of the problematic Band Aid Christmas song and, in particular, subsequent re-releases). This is despite the fact that Ethiopia is one of the world's fastest growing economies and for a lot of history has exhibited a higher degree of civilisation than equivalent nations in the west. Anyway, the series has been good on race as a whole, and this is just another example. Pilate's attempt to impress his Ethiopian guest fails, instead he turns his head in disgust, again, setting things up for (I presume) the next episode. Things are even worse for Joanna - Pilate decides to have her killed.

    Meanwhile, James (who looks like Christian Bale) has somehow negotiated a deal with Caiaphas, so long as the Christian's just "respect the temple". Peter, John and Simon seem to think it's reasonable, but Saul sees it as a compromise and preaches being "freed from the tyranny of the temple". But when Simon meets with Zealot he realises he cannot help his "brother" to be murdered just because they disagree on theology and approach. The zealots have been asked to murder Saul by Caiaphas' wife Leah and when they hear Saul preach against the temple for themselves they decide to act, asking Simon to deliver him to them. Simon is clearly unhappy with this and when he rejoins the disciples he finds Saul soothing Tabitha and reassuring her with an early version of Romans 8:38 and realises he needs to help Saul escape. The final scenes neatly intercut Saul saying goodbye to Peter, James, Simon, John and Barnabas in the desert with the scape goat being released at the culmination of Yom Kippur. The closing overhead wide shot of Saul walking into the desert leaving the Jerusalem disciples behind is a one of the series best.

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    Wednesday, March 28, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): Schönberg's Portrayal

    This is part 4 of a series of posts about Straub and Huillet's film adaptation of Schönberg's opera "Moses und Aron". You can read them all here. Still from the 1968 performance in Düsseldorf.
    As I demonstrated in my previous post on this subject, Schönberg uses a variety of musical techniques to portray the leading characters in his opera in various different ways: he uses sprechstimme to emphsise Moses' difficulty with speech; he uses the perfection and inclusivity of twelve-tone serialism to display the perfection of God; and, he has Aron distort the God's initial tone row to highlight the compromises and distortions that Aron makes in order to enable the people to comprehend the God that is reaching out to them.

    I want to expand these observations now to look at Schönberg's portrayal of the four key 'characters' in the opera.

    Moses - The Inflexible Idealist
    In contrast to most dramatisations of the life of Moses, Schönberg's opera truncates almost his entire backstory. There is no account of his birth, his parents, his sister Miriam, or his upbringing in the Egyptian court. There is a brief mention in act I scene 3 of his murdering the Egyptian guard and fleeing, but no mention of his subsequent meeting with Jethro, or his marriage to Zipporah. Schönberg, then, has little interest in Moses' biography, only in his theology and his present beliefs.

    As with the majority of artistic portrayals, Schönberg seeks to depict Moses as a character of particular significance and prominence. As Sir John Tomlinson puts it "Moses is an exceptional character...he’s not normal" (Opera on 3). It is he alone who hears God speak. Yet whilst this is a special privilege, it also carries a significant burden. Moses has a unique insight into the nature of God, but he struggles to percive how he can communicate it, not least because he is a man who can only speak in a world where everybody sings.

    Initially, Moses is optimistic and seems to believe he will be able to explain to others the insight he has gained. However, his experiences with Aron and then the people lead him to realise that his task is a difficult one.

    Paramount in Moses' understanding is his determination that images are at best an inadequate way of communicating the nature of God and, at worst, dangerously heretical. "For this Moses...the second commandment, which prohibits images of God, is not merely a fundamental condition of Jewish monotheism and a meaningful life, it is virtually the only condition". (Goldstein 163).

    Moses strongly maintains this position in the face of mounting opposition. Whilst Aron initially seems willing to try and understand, a combination of his failure to fully grasp Moses' ideal and his natural pragmatic streak lead him to reject his brother's position. The people show even less inclination to adopt Moses' imageless faith than Aron, indeed seemingly the biggest reason Aron seeks to amend Moses' message is to fashion it into a form which will be both comprehensible and acceptable to the people.

    However evidence begins to emerge that Moses' position is even more extreme than God's. Towards the end of act I, and in the face of Moses' refusal to compromise, Aron performs of the two biblical miracles, the transformation of Moses' staff into a snake and the leprous hand. But these two signs appear to be acts of God, miracles performed to communicate to the people. It seems that God has more belief in the validity of imagery than his most faithful servant.

    As the second act begins, the extent of this problem becomes clearer. Ultimately "Moses' conviction that God cannot be represented and that truth, and not beauty, must be maintained, makes him an ineffective leader. " (Batnitzky 2001: 12). He is unable to lead the people, because he lacks their support. When he leaves them to spend time with God they rebel against and seek not a image from God such as the signs, but a human-made image of God.

    By the time Moses finally appears in Act II, the people have delved into a full blown paganistic orgy. Indignant at what he sees and emboldened by his time with his god he orders the golden calf "Vergeh" ("Begone") and it disappears. He then scolds Aron, the two argue over the way they have each sought to lead the people. When Aron tells Moses he is too closely bound to his ideas ("Du bist an deinen Gedanken gebunden!"), Moses argues that the two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments which express this same idea. When Aron retorts "die auch nur ein Bild" ("They are also images") Moses smashes the two tablets. In contrast to the biblical account where Moses does this in anger, here it is to express the intensity of his belief and the extremes he will go to in order to follow them. But yet again God seems to undermine Moses' strict idealism. As with the end of act I, where Moses' staff became a snake, here God sends the pillars of fire and cloud. Whilst Moses initially expresses it as a "Götzenbilder!" ("Godless image!") he quickly realises that he too has fashioned a false image "So habe ich mir ein Bild gemacht, falsch". The libretto's final words in Act II are a stage direction "Moses sinkt verzweifelt zu Boden." ("Moses sinks to the ground in despair").

    Whilst many productions of the opera end it at this point, thus leaving their audience with the sympathetic impression of a great man overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge he faces, Schönberg clearly intended something different as indicated by his work on the unfinished third act. Whereas Act II ends with a Moses who "seems less angry with what has happened than despairing" (Cooke, Opera on 3) when we rejoin the action at the start of Act III he appears a far more strident and determined figure. He conducts a token trial of Aron before condemning him and whilst Aron is ultimately released, the events leading up to this announcement have been so horrific that he falls down dead.

    The unfinished nature of the third act is interesting because it raises further questions as to whether Moses is meant to be the hero or the villain. Are we to meant to aspire to be like him, or to be different from him? If the opera ended at the end of Act II then whilst Moses' inflexible idealism has not persuaded his people, or even his brother, to follow him, he has stuck steadfastly to his beliefs. Was he right to do so? However, if the opera ends at the end of Act III, then Moses has ultimately become something of a monster, a man who abuses his brother to the point of death over an issue of theology.

    In Schöenberg's own life there are two important parallels to consider. The first is the rise, and then fall, of Hitler and the Nazis and anti-Semitism inherent in their ideology. But, again, there are two opposing interpretations. Is Moses the Jewish hero standing up against the appropriation of images in the face of sizeable opposition as Goldstein suggests (165)? Or is he, by the end of Act III at least, a dangerous idealist who ousts his brother to become a somewhat brutal dictator?

    The other parallel is Schöenberg involvement with a movement to unite the Jewish people in their own state, not only for their own safety, but also in order to preserve the idea of the unrepresentable God. Indeed, according to Goldstein, Schönberg "was willing and ready to assume the leadership" of this movement in particular because of "his hardheadedness, his obduracy", his inflexibility and devotion to the idea" the very traits he bequeathed to Moses (Goldstein 166). Schönberg seemingly creates Moses into the kind of person he perceived himself to be. It is possible Schönberg saw himself as a kind of Moses figure. Certainly he was "(i)nspired by the biblical figure of Moses" both in the pioneering nature of his music and his politics (Feisst 83)

    Perhaps, it is because of these questions and seeming contradictions that Schönberg found it impossible to finish the work. Whilst he identified with his image of Moses, he was also wary of the dangers of an unblinking devotion to an idealistic cause.

    The title - "Moses und Aron" - reflects the dispute at the heart of the work. It's two eponymous leads personify the different sides of the debate over the question of whether an incomprehensible God can be, or indeed ought to be, represented using imagery. Thus Aron is presented as a counterfoil to his brother. If Moses is the inflexible idealist, Aaron is the pliable pragmatist, always seeking to find a compromise in order to ensure the people as a whole move forward together. "While for Moses God is and remains invisible and ineffable, an idea that cannot be represented (‘Unrepresentable God!/Unspeakable, ambiguous idea!’ [194]), Aaron, occupied with formulating expressive means sure to please, insists on the efficacy of constructing familiar and attractive images of the deity" (Goldstein 156). Whereas Moses fixates more on the abstract, Aaron "seeks a representation of God tailored to the people’s needs and to the religious and social conventions known to them" (Goldstein 156).

    Another way to look at the dispute between the two men is to see it as competing understandings of freedom. For Goldstein, Aron is hunting for freedom from "the oppression of slavery", whereas his brother sees it more as "freedom from what is transitory" (156). Moses adheres adamantly to this second view of freedom; Aaron almost exclusively to a "freedom from physical bondage".

    However, the reasons behind Aron's compromising approach are less clear. Is his pragmatism merely his desire for love, popularity or power; or rooted in a passionate love of the people, and a belief in unity, which rivals Moses' passionate defense of God's pure and unrepresentable nature; or even a combination of both?

    On the one hand, it's notable, for example that when Moses first meets his brother after his encounter with God, Aron asks him - before Moses can even speak - if he is sent by mighty God ("schickt dich mir der große Gott?") and he also uses the word "Allmächtige" ("Almighty") before Moses can offer any kind of description.

    Yet on the other hand Aron seems to have a genuine feeling for the the people that Moses cannot match. In the climatic fifth scene of Act II Aron declares "Ich liebe diese Volk, ich liebe für es und wikk es efhakten!" ("I love this humble folk, I live for them and want to satisfy them"). Moses counters not with is own declaration of love for the people, but for his love for his idea. When Aron suggests his brother would love the people if only he spent time with them, Moses insists that "Es muß den Gednaken er fassen!" ("They must comprehend the idea!").

    By this stage what had started off as a failure to understand Moses' key message has turned sour. Whilst Moses convened with God, Aron strengthened his bond with the people. When Moses loses the argument over symbolism, he goes away broken, but returns to wrestle power back from his brother in the final act. For Wörner, Aron's distortion of Moses' message has a negative psychological effect on Aron. "The recognition of the pure idea by human imagination signifies a diminution, a darkening; and this diminution eventually turns into denial and betrayal (Wörner 67)." But it affects Moses for the worse as well making him inflexible and unwilling to declare a love for the people even if he disagrees with them.

    Judging by the music, however, the suggestion seems to be that Schönberg sides with Moses more than his brother. When Aron sings, he distorts God's original tone row. "In all other contexts, Aaron’s musical characterisation is that of a sorcerer, an artist of transmutation, a seducer and demon, equivocal, restless, carrying good and evil within himself, but affecting evil, destruction." (Wörner 84).

    At the heart of the dispute between the two leads is Moses' vision of God. Indeed the opera's opening words are Moses describing God as "Einziger, ewiger, allgegenwärtiger, unsichtbarer und unvorstellbarer Gott!" ("Unique, eternal, omnipresent one, invisible and inconceivable God!"). Quite a list of adjectives. God's response is to assert the holiness that surrounds him by ordering Moses to remove his shoes. Moses then calls God the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but tries to turn down the opportunity to be God's prophet ("verkünde"). God then talks about the enslavement of Moses' people and tells him "du mußt dein Volk daraus befrein!" ("You must free your people/folk").

    What Moses takes away from this encounter in scene one we discover as he speaks to Aron in scene two and the people in scene four. In his initial conversation with Aron he describes God as "der Allgegenwärtige nicht Raum" ("The Almighty that exists outside of men") and as both "Unsichtbaren" ("invisible/unseen") and "Unvorstellbaren" ("unimageable"). Both of these terms become crucial in the discussion about God's nature the former being used nine times and the later eleven. Furthermore, as Batnitzky observes, "both Moses and Aron refer to God as unvorstellbar" going on to note the word's "connotations of unrepresentable, unimaginable, and ultimately inconceivable" (2001: 11-12).

    These two terms along with "Einzige" ("unique/only one", used eleven times) and "ewige" ("eternal/everlasting", used thirteen times) form the key part of the work's understanding of God as "an ineffable deity" to the extent that he may indeed be "unrepresentable" (Goldstein 152). If Moses' is correct, then, as Tomlinson puts it, the "true idea of God is so pure that it is inexpressible” (Opera on 3).

    The ideas flowing from this idea of God as unrepresentable are present in some of Schönberg's other religious works. As Steiner explains "Moses and Aaron is thematically and psychologically related to an entire set of works in which Schoenberg sought to express his highly individual, though at the same time profoundly Judaic concept of identity, of the act of spiritual creation, and of the dialogue— so inherent in music— between the song of man and the silences of God" (41). At the same time the ideas about God he is exploring also flow from many other Jewish thinkers, and say something about the Jewish people as a whole. “Like Graetz, Cohen, and Schoenberg, Freud maintains that a self-imposed, Jewish resistance to visuality marks Judaism as a rationally and morally advanced civilization” (Batnitzky 2004: 8).

    Yet despite the opera's overall emphasis on God's unique, eternal, unrepresentable and unchangeable nature, it also offers several indications from a different perspective. In particular, for all Moses' insistence that God does not communicate through symbol, or perhaps even at all, we find four incidents when God does indeed appear to intervene and communicate something of himself: when the staff turns into a snake at the end of Act I; when the golden calf vanishes ("vergeht") at the end of act II scene 4; through the pillars of fire and cloud in the following scene; and the water flowing from the rock which is discussed in Act III.

    Of course other explanations can always be found for such phenomena, but there's little in the libretto to give oxygen to such theories, not least because Schönberg so pointedly draws attention to the disappearance of the golden calf, which is, in any case, his own invention. There are two further considerations within the final act. The first is the suddenness of Aron's death. Whilst most commentators have inferred this was due to fear or stress arising from his confrontation with Moses, the possibility that this is God's final judgement on the dispute between the two protagonists. Secondly, Moses also appears to have finally softened slightly his previously hard-line stance on the prohibition of images.

    The People
    One of the relatively unusual things that Schönberg does with "Moses und Aron" is the way he makes the chorus almost into a principle character. As a group they regular speak as one voice and in dialogue with Aron and, to a lesser extent, Moses. The reasons for this seems to be Schönberg's desire to engage a modern Jewish audience in a debate about their shared future.

    In particular, it is noticeable how in the very first scene, God addresses the future of his people in a way that goes beyond the text of Exodus 3-4.
    "Und ihr werdet gesegnet sein.
    Denn das gelobe ich dir:
    Dieses Volk ist auserwählt,
    vor allen Völkern,
    das Volk des einzigen Gottes zu sein,
    daß es ihr erkenne
    und sich ihm allein ganz widme;
    daß es at Prüfungen bestehe,
    denen - in Jahrtausenden
    der Gedanke ausgesetzt ist.
    Und das verheiße ich dir:
    Ich will euch dorthin führen,
    wo ihr mit dem Ewigen einig
    und allen Völkern ein Vorbild werdet.

    "And your people will now be blessed.
    Because I promise you:
    Your people are the chosen people
    before all the others,
    They are the people of the only God.
    They are thus to know him
    and give worship to him alone.
    Also they will undergo all trials
    that over millennia
    can ever be conceived.
    And this I promise you:
    I shall take you forward
    to where united with the infinite eternal one
    you will be a model for all people."
    Given that Schönberg was writing during the rise of Nazi Germany and was spurred on by personal encounters with anti-Semitism, it's not hard to see what was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote about undergoing all the trials that could be conceived over the millennia. Moses' final words to the people are also significant, outlining the way the people will be repeatedly thrown back to the "Wüste" ("wasteland/desert") before ultimately concluding that "Aber in der Wüste seid ihr unüberwindlich und werdet das Ziel erreichen: Vereinigt mit Gott." ("But in the wasteland you shall be insurmountable and shall acheive the goal: unity with God.")

    That said, the opera does paint the people in a very poor light. Whilst the people are initially excited by the prospect of Moses liberating them from Pharaoh, they quickly leap to calling for "Blutopfer" ("blood offerings"). Neither Moses, nor Aron, believe them capable of conceiving of God as they do, and once Moses is out of the way they quickly end up holding an orgy, murdering dissidents and sacrificing young women.

    It is difficult, then, to extract what Schönberg wants to say to his own people from what he felt was necessary from a dramatic point of view, not to mention his interpretation of the biblical material. Feisst suggests that "he perceived himself as an outsider from the Jewish community, despite his desire to become accepted by this group" (84). It is, therefore, crucial to remember then that this forms part of a discussion within Judaism and also that the chorus also represent humanity in general.

    Indeed one of the things Schönberg seems to be suggesting is that without order chaos ensues. This not only the expressed in the film's narrative arc, but also in the order inherent in Schönberg's use of  twelve-tone serialism. It is perhaps also Schönberg's vision of the chaos that was sweeping Europe and the threat it posed to his people. "(S)eeking the way out of a deadly wilderness. He made his way out of Europe, but could not bring his people with him" (Goldstein 167).

    As discussed above, Schönberg came to the conclusion that the only solution was for an independent Jewish state (Stuckenschmidt 541-542). These beliefs can be traced back to before his 1927 play "Der biblische Weg" which reflected "Herzl's idea of a provisional Jewish state outside Palestine" (Feisst 86). Schönberg did not find the majority of his people responsive to his ideas, which is no doubt reflected in the way the chorus in "Moses und Aron" fail to join Moses' cause. Just as Schönberg felt estranged from his people even as he longed for their acceptance, so the Moses of the opera find that his "God and divine mission bind him to a people from whom he could only be estranged since his idea of God precludes any means for communicating that idea" (Goldstein 160).

    It's is noticeable, too, that when the people do finally rally, it occurs between the second and third acts such that is unclear quite what he has done to turn the tide. The gap leaves room for speculation - some may even be well founded - but the lack of a clear answer reflects Schönberg's failure to find a way of convincing his people to follow him, at least until it was too late.

    It is precisely because of the size of the issues raised by "Moses und Aron" that Steiner argues that the opera, both in terms of medium and message,
    "belongs to that very small group of operas which embody so radical and comprehensive an act of imagination, of dramatic and philosophic argument articulated by poetic and musical means, that there are aspects of it which go well beyond the normal analysis of an operatic score. It belongs not only to the history of modern music— in a critical way, as it exemplifies the application of Schoenberg's principles on a large, partly conventional scale— but to the history of the modern theater, of modern theology, of the relationship between Judaism and the European crisis." (40)
    The work which, in some ways, is based largely on just two men, explores its theme, speculates about the nature of its god, and expands its vision, not just to cover the nation in Moses' day, but also all of their descendants and, to some extent, the whole world.

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2001). Schoenberg's Moses Und Aron and the Judaic Ban on Images. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 25. 73-90.

    Feisst, Sabine (2011) Schoenberg's New World: The American Years. New York: Oxford University Press

    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.

    - Opera on 3: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, (2014) - BBC Radio 3 programme featuring interviews with Christopher Cooke, 13 June 2014. Available online -http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020y7jq

    - Steiner, George (1965) 'Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”' Encounter (June), pp.40-46.

    - Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz (1977) Schoenberg: His Life, World, and Work. Trans. Humphrey Searle. New York: Schirmer.

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.

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    Thursday, March 22, 2018

    Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)

    The film's title may be Paul, Apostle of the Christ, and its biggest star (Jim Caveziel) may be playing Luke, but as much as anything, this film is as much about Priscilla, Aquila and the ordinary Christians of Rome. As the film's closing dedication confirms, this is a film about those persecuted for their faith.

    Paul is set in 67 A.D. as Nero's persecution are wrecking havoc amongst the Christian community. Paul is in prison and Priscilla and Aquila and their community are in hiding trying to decide if they should stick it out in Rome, or flee for pastures new. The impressive, but grim, opening shot tracks Luke as he arrives in Rome and is immediately confronted with the sight of his fellow Christians being burned alive in order to light up the city. He manages to dodge the Roman soldiers long enough to arrive safely at Priscilla and Aquila's house and spends much of the rest of the film going between Paul on the one hand and Priscilla and Aquila on the other.

    Whilst Paul seems resigned to his fate others are less certain about their path in life. When one of their number is killed some of the Christians want to take Roman blood in revenge. The officer overseeing Paul's imprisonment finds his orders distasteful, but not to the extent that he is willing to risk his life to defy his emperor. His wife blames his ambiguity about religion for his daughter's illness, yet when it starts to threaten her life, she soon urges him to do whatever it takes to save her life. If only there were some kind of famous physician on hand...

    Whilst several TV series have focused on Paul, films about the man from Tarsus are pretty rare. Of course he has brief roles in many of the Roman-Christian epics such as Quo Vadis? (1951) but Paul, Apostle of Christ is the first feature-length film about Paul to play in theatres since the end of the silent era. It's a little unusual, then, that the film focuses on the small part of Paul's life which we only know about from tradition (and even then, the differing accounts disagree) rather than the wealth of material that exists about thirty years of ministry.

    This is largely by design. The film is in a very different mode from the traditional Roman-Christian epic. Rather than going for spectacle and grandeur, huge crowd scenes, life-changing miracles wooed on by the soundtrack and exciting battles, this is a far more sombre and mature affair. It's deliberately heavy on ideas and dialogue. This means that whilst the budget is, presumably fairly low, the money that has been spent on it has been used wisely. The cast is generally strong, in particular James Faulkner in the title role, but also Joanne Whalley and John Lynch as Priscilla and Aquila, and the sets and costumes hold their own.

    Of course, part of the pleasure of watching Paul film is seeing which quotations the screenwriters will work into the script. Here the balance is fairly good between the biblical and the fictional and Faulkner does a great job of intoning some of Paul's most famous words. The problem is, that as Paul is more or less confined to his cell for almost the entire film it doesn't leave Faulkner a great deal else to do and we're not given as much insight into his character and personality as might be expected.

    That said, for a faith-based film this reliance on dialogue is a sign of maturity. The film never feels like it is trying to grab your attention just long enough to swoop in with a sermon when you're least expecting it. Indeed it never feels preachy and it's meandering pace and use of dialogue make for a far more satisfying experience. Furthermore, director Andrew Hyatt produces a number of interesting and occasionally very impressive shots. There's the odd misstep - the sudden recovery of the Jailer's daughter is a little too saccharin, for example - but overall it's an interesting look at the problems of persecution faced by Jesus' early followers and a useful reminder of the early church's non-violent stance.

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    Tuesday, March 20, 2018

    Judas in Mary Magdalene (2018)

    I posted my main review of Mary Magdalene at the weekend but there were a couple of the things about the film that I wanted to explore, but that felt a little too specific for a general review and that also seemed like good ideas for a blog post in and of themselves. The portrayal of Mary has been covered by numerous others and, in particular, it's been interesting to hear what various female critics and academics have had to say about her. So instead I'd look at the film's portrayal of Judas.


    Perhaps the most striking thing about the film's portrayal of Judas is that we don't find out his name until his character has had a chance to get well established. This has a major impact on the film's ability to portray him sympathetically.

    When Mary first meets the disciples overall they are fairly morose and whilst not actively hostile, they certainly aren't welcoming. There is, however, one notable exception. This character is smiley and open and chats to Mary in a friendly fashion. She warms to him far more than the other, more remote, disciples.

    One of their key conversations goes into why this disciple decided to follow Jesus. The story is a little unclear, but this is done in such a fashion as to makes the conversation seem more realistic, not because this character is hiding something. It seems his wife and daughter died as a result of Herod's unrelenting taxes in the midst of a food shortage, and Herod's willingness to call in the might of Rome to ensure his demands are met. It's not quite clear - even less so a few days after viewing it - whether they died by the sword, from hunger, from illness, or by their own hand, but clearly the disciple is still deeply mourning their loss.

    It's no surprise then that what is most attracting this disciple to Jesus is his talk of the coming kingdom and the end of the world. The disciple sees this as a chance to be re-united with his family. And it's around this point in the story that the film confirms what many in the audience are already expecting: that this character is Judas. Even so, and like many moments in the film, the revelation isn't made dramatically, as if to underline it's theological significance. Jesus just casually uses his name in a normal every day kind of way, in a way that's consistent with the disciples klnowledge of him. There's no sensational music, dramatic cut, or camera zooming in. There's not even a gap in the dialogue. But to the audience it becomes apparent that just as the film has sought to turn the traditional portrayal of Mary on it's head, it is approaching the character of Judas differently too.

    However, by delaying the moment when Judas' name is revealed, it allows the audience to get to know Judas as a character without associating him with all his cultural baggage. And obviously it goes out of his way to present him as a sympathetic character: friendly, smiley, nervous, vulnerable and clearly hurting.

    After these initial moments, Judas' becomes a little less prominent for a while, but it becomes clear that the reason he is going to betray Jesus is to try and force his hand into revealing who he is and bringing about the kingdom. This is one of the most commonly given motivations for Judas' actions in films about Jesus, but here it's made more effective because Jesus does seem weak and indecisive. But whereas in other film this makes Judas seem aggressive, impatient, arrogant, misguided, or lacking understanding, here it's far more understandable. Judas' despair at what has happened to his family is beginning to envelop him. When Jesus fails to use the incident in the temple as the springboard for his new world he frets that he might not get to see his family soon enough. Jesus' weakness is also becoming more apparent so Judas really sees himself as being a good and helpful friend. He's entirely well meaning.

    It's significant as well that we don't see the moments that Judas makes his arrangement with the high priest. Omitting scenes of Judas agreeing to betray Jesus again makes things more sympathetic. Crucially, throughout the film there is no mention of the 30 pieces of silver. Judas is not portrayed as dishonest, he isn't stealing money from the common purse, he doesn't chastise Mary for not selling her nard for money to give to the poor, he's not greedy, or even in debt. The money is never mentioned or seen.

    Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this portrayal though is how it portrays Judas' final moments. In contrast to every other Jesus film to cover these, Judas does not hang himself until after Jesus has died, indeed he still hasn't entirely given up hope whilst Jesus is still alive. There's even one moment after the betrayal where he smiles. Whilst he is, perhaps, beginning to fear the worst he doesn't fully realise what he has done until Jesus is dead.

    Even then, Judas has been so well meaning, so hurting yet hopeful that Judas still doesn't come across as a villain. And whereas the other male disciples have fled, Judas, along with Mary, is still there watching Jesus die, waiting for the moment.

    And then Mary, reaches out, and touches a broken Judas by the hand to comfort him. And it's not entirely unwarranted. This is not the actions of a Mary who is so Christlike that she's willing to reach out to Judas even after horrific sin. It's because she, and we, understand how he got things wrong, that he didn't mean for this to happen (that's a common line in Jesus films, but here it never really elicits that much sympathy). It's quite a remarkable moment, because it feels like the actions of a compassionate human, not the act of a super-being, or someone so holy that there action seems unreal.

    Nevertheless Judas' role ends as it always ends. Mary asks where Judas is going. He replies that he is going to see his family. We know the story enough to know what he means, but Mary does not, though perhaps she suspects it on some level.

    In contrast with other portrayals (yet again) Judas hangs himself in the town, not in a garden or countryside. The final shot of Judas starts with a wide shot of the hillside covered with houses, in a way that is so typical of Matera. The camera gently zooms in and it becomes apparent partway through that in the doorway of the house in the middle of the shot a man has hung himself. Having started with the wide shot, with so many doorways apparent, the impact of Judas' mistake are dwarfed by the impact of the bigger shot. So many other human lives. So many other mistakes. Even this final shot carries the sense of compassion for Judas which is held throughout the film and is typical of Mary's role in particular.


    If you're interested in this post, you might also be interested in Carol Hebron's book Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed - A Critical Examination of the Portrayal of Judas in Jesus Films (1902-2014) (2016) Bloomsbury

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    Saturday, March 17, 2018

    Mary Magdalene 2018

    This review is a bit of a work in progress and I intend to write a few more posts about the film over the next few weeks. Still it seemed important to get something down whilst it's still in cinemas, not least because I didn't want to leave it three years like I did with Noah.

    Arguably the three most influential religious films of the last century were Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1929), Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) and Jewison's Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973). It's perhaps not surprising, then, that Mary Magdalene, a films so heavily invested in its visuals, evokes these three films again and again. Just as Dreyer's film is dominated by Falconetti's face as he transforms Joan into something of a Christ figure, so director Garth Davis focuses on Rooney Mara's features as he shapes Mary into a far more compelling figure than the man she is supposedly following. Both Mary and Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew were filmed in Matera where the jaggedness of the buildings and landscape contrasts with the smooth round shapes of shawls clasped tightly round the heads of their wind-battered owners. And then there is Superstar; Chiwetel Ejiofor frequently channelling Carl Anderson's scowls and glares, his charisma and masculine self-belief, and his bristling bewilderment at the way the movement he loves is drifting off course as their scruffy-looking leader is drawn towards Mary (Rooney Mara).

    Yet for all the ways in which it mirrors these twentieth century films, what makes Mary Magdalene interesting is its twenty-first century sensibility. As the title suggests, this film is not primarily about Jesus, but about one of his most important followers, Mary Magdalene, and whilst it's not the first film to tell the story from her perspective, it's a worthy attempt to liberate her from both the church's labelling of her as a prostitute, and various dramatists portrayal of her as Jesus' potential love interest.

    That it does so is thanks, largely to Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett's script which picks up the story in Magdala, where Mary still lives with her father. When she heads into the village synagogue to pray one evening, the town's religious officials worry about her demeanour, whilst the men of her family feel that she has disgraced them. The two groups of men take it upon themselves one evening to try to literally drown out her demons and then seem at a loss about what to do when she appears traumatised by the experience. And then, "The Healer" arrives.

    Jesus turns up, sees the core of who Mary really is. He soothes her and brings healing to her badly bruised soul. Little wonder, then, she decides to flee her over-bearing and violent family to follow him. Jesus, welcomes her presence, not least because she seems to understand both him and his message better than the male disciples do. They talk about a war that he has no interest in; she talks about "what it feels like to be one with God". No-one has ever asked him that before. She is able to gently point out the ways his approach is, apparently unintentionally, making it hard for women to get involved. She encourages him to preach in the parts of the town where the women gather and points out how "The women are too afraid to be baptised with the men" (hardly surprising given Mary's family's attempts at exorcism by submersion in water).

    What's interesting about Edmundson and Goslett's script is not only the way it never forgets it is about Mary, and not Jesus, but also the way it finds small, out of the way, elements in the gospels to elaborate upon. It does this in order to enrich its theme whilst simultaneously retaining its respect for the source material. It's noticeable, also, how these scenes often show the moment itself, rather than the predefined package we're presented with in the gospels. In one scene Mary and Peter are travelling on their own to spread the message, but there's no build up to the scene preceded by Jesus makes a speech about them going out two by two and how they are to do it. We simply join them on the road as they are doing it. And here Peter learns about the importance of mercy which clashes with his pragmatism, but comes so very naturally to her.

    Similar in this respect is the scene where Jesus raises a man from the dead. It's not entirely clear if this is Lazarus or the widow of Nain's son? It has elements of both, but focuses less upon the broader meaning and theological significance of the moment and more on the experience of it. Naturally enough the narrative ends up in Jerusalem, but the sometimes endless scenes where Jesus is dragged from one patriarchal leader to another are not included, but it's handled so skilfully that it honours the significance of these events without losing its balance and focus.

    Indeed, the film's gentle pacing,  Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson's haunting score and its lingering shots of ruggedly beautiful landscapes stay with you long after the film. Yet for all these strengths I never quite found it as satisfying as I'd hoped. Whilst the sensitivity and spirituality of Joaquim Phoenix's Jesus is welcome, he seems to lack passion and drive, instead coming over as more stoned than inspired. It's not hard to work out what Mary believes in, nor what the film stands for, but as to what Jesus' message is, it's hard to tell, He has a series of good lines, but brought together they add up to very little aside from a potentially popular Instagram feed.

    Whilst it's hardly surprising that the film has been far better received by women than male critics, I wonder if this is mainly because Jesus is a far less well rounded out and defined character than Mary. Mistaking Jesus' lack of passion for that of the film as a whole is easy to do when the character you most naturally relate to is somewhat weak. But whilst male critics shouldn't let the film off for that, we should recognise that the reason we are so attuned to it is because in almost all other cases the shoe has been on the other foot. We've been treated to numerous well-rounded, interesting depictions of Jesus, accompanied by only cardboard cut out portrayals of the female characters in the story, if they are even there at all.

    Indeed, taken as a whole, this film is passionate, it's just Mara's Mary who is carrying it and embodying it, all the while skilfully navigating the rocky path between being seen as either too pushy or too passive. The film's Mary is neither. She's an advocate for change in the name of inclusivity - it's no coincidence that this is the first Jesus film where Judas is treated compassionately after the crucifixion, rather than simply before it.

    Whilst I'm not sure the film has quite earned the feminist film credentials that so many have thrust upon it, perhaps its most strongly feminist element is the way that it is Mary who comes out as the bold, flawless, creative and original visionary in contrast to a Jesus who is a misguided dreamer. and weak leader. The film is beautiful to look at, and its unhurried rhythm gives viewers plenty of time to think about Mary's more compassionate vision of faith and whether she has something to say to us too.

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    Wednesday, March 14, 2018

    Mary Magdalene Round Up

    I've been toying with the idea of whether to post this piece or whether to stick to my usual pace of roughly twice a week, but now I figure, with 2 Bible films being releases in the next 10 days, I should probably just crack on. So here's a round up of various bit and pieces to do with the Mary Magdalene film which opens in the UK on Friday.

    Firstly, Kermode and Mayo's Film Review broadcast an interview with the star of Mary, Rooney Mara as part of last Friday's show. It starts around 40 minutes into full programme, which also includes a few comments from them around the fact that Rooney Mara still hasn't manage to see the finished film yet. Alternatively you can listen to just the interview which is around 12 minutes long. Their review will be in next week's show.

    The earliest reviews for the film have been rather poor however. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls the story "toothless" and sums it up as "a platonic apostlemance". Empire's Dan Jolin is only marginally more impressed finding Phoenix's turn as Jesus unconvincing and the film itself losing "focus during the crucial final act". Guy Lodge of Variety finds that "its characterization of Mary herself feels tentative and incomplete".

    In contrast there's a much more positive piece at The Telegraph, though the eagle-eyed will notice that it says it is "brought to you by Mary Magdalene". That's either a startling new resurrection story, or an indication that the piece suggesting the film could be an OscarTM contender isn't as neutral as it might be. Currently the film is at only 36% at Rotten Tomatoes, though it has a more respectable 6.4 at IMDb.

    Part of the reason for this maybe that there have been a number of church leader screenings, events which tend to generate an unusual initial enthusiasm & high ranking on IMDb (where anyone can vote) which contrasts with Rotten Tomatoes where there is some kind of pre-requiste of actually knowing something about film. (Disclaimer: That's not snobbery - I'm not good enough for RT either!)

    One of those pre-screenings was held in London by Damaris (I guess my invite must have got lost in the post, right?) who have also produced a media resource in partnership with Mothers' Union which you can download here.

    Two of the people who saw the film at another screening were Prof. Joan Taylor, an academic adviser on the film, and Helen Bond. Afterwards they discussed the film and have released it as a podcast.

    These days it's always worth keeping an eye on Twitter if you're wanting to keep on top of stories such as this. If you're already folloing me, I'm @MattPage. Two other people are worth following as the release date approaches are Michelle Fletcher @NTRight who has seen the film and liked it; and, of course, Peter Chattaway (@PTChat) who hasn't but is always worth following for Bible film related news anyway.

    Speaking of Peter, over at his blog there are links to a featurette of the film, as well as quotes from and links to a number of other interviews.

    One final piece of news is that this film has passed the Loughborough test, and so I will be reviewing it at some point over the weekend, depending on how awake I feel after a week at work and an evening screening.

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    Monday, March 12, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 8

    This is part 8 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here

    Having spun out episode 7 with it's implausible Tiberius subplot, we finally come to Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus. It's one of those scenes such as the parting of the Red Sea, the defeat of Goliath and the raising of Lazarus that form a kind of set-piece in terms of portrayals of their particular character and a central moment in the films that portray them. So it's surprising, then that it arrives so early in the episode.

    As depictions of Paul's Damascene conversion go, I'm not sure how I feel about it. As with these others there's a sort of mental checklist. For Paul's conversion this is made slightly more interesting because there are three accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:1-19; Acts 22:6-16 & Acts 26:12-20) which differ on some of the minor details, notably the precise words spoken and what those travelling with Saul do or do not, see and hear. The Acts 26 account also omits some details (no mention of the blindness, nor of Ananias) but without contradicting them.

    In this version Paul is on foot, though in the previous scene one of Caiaphas's men rides up on a horse but dismounts to join them. The scene starts with the servant asking Saul as to why he hates Peter so much and Saul gives a curious answer about how he find their beliefs ridiculous, though he does eventually manage to call them apostates as well. In his fury Paul marches off, but is suddenly enveloped in shadow before a bright light shines on him and Jesus appears and asks "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?". Interestingly Saul is not thrown to the floor at this stage, but angrily holds his ground to ask "Who are you?", and he even aggressively marches towards Jesus when he replies "I am Jesus whom you persecute". Saul's line here - "No, no, no, no, no, No, NO, NOOOO!" - combines the worst elements of Vader's revelation in the Empire Strikes Back and Lockwood's ad-libbed dialogue in Singin' in the Rain, and is met by Jesus raising his arms and Saul being forced backwards and to the ground. At this moment the film cuts to Saul's companions and shows the shot from their point of view. In contrast to all three biblical accounts they are not affected in any way. They neither see the light nor hear Jesus' voice, nor are they thrown to the ground, they are not even in shadow though they are being buffeted by the wind. The camera then moves back to a close up of Saul, featuring the more dramatic lighting. Saul shouts "What do you want from me?" three times, with increasing volume, before Jesus finally says "Go into Damascus. You'll be told what to do." With that there's a burst of even brighter light and a sort of visible energy wave/pulse and Jesus vanishes, leaving Saul with his hands on his eyes. There's then an excellent PoV shot of Saul's vision fading out to black, which seems like an interesting reversal of the famous first shot of Jesus in The King of Kings from the PoV of a blind girl Jesus restores her sight. Now Saul's first sight of Jesus is the cause of him losing his sight.

    Apologies if that is a very long, dull, account of the scene, but I do love to compare these set pieces.

    If the last two episodes of A.D. have been relatively free of the dodgy special effects tha have plagued this series, then this episode seems determined to make up for them. On top of those described, in perhaps a little too much detail above, we also have the conclusion to the Simon Magus episode. One of the down sides of covering this series one episode at a time is that sometimes you write about something before seeing how it will pan out and here is a good case. Having liked the way the last episode seemed to end this part of the story with Philip seemingly wrapping things up without too much ado, in this episode everything goes full blown. Peter and John do turn up, Simon does make a grab for more of the Holy Spirit's power and it all ends in completely over the top fashion. Whereas the biblical account has Simon repenting when he hear's Peter's curse, here God goes all Old Testament on him. The clouds go dark, the wind blows and he starts bleeding from his eyes. Peter yells out asking God to "let him live" and the wind and eye-bleeding abates, but it's all a bit silly.

    Having witnessed this gratuitous use of special effects here, it's rather disappointing that, when it comes to Saul's sight being restored by Ananias the CGI is rather low key. Yes Ananias does see Jesus in a special bright light, but when he puts his hands on Saul's eyes there's not a falling fish scale to be seen.

    In and around all of this there is the backstory of Tiberius' visit to Jerusalem and using Pilate to try and keep Caligula and Agrippa apart. Certainly there's some historical basis for Tiberius' attitude to Agrippa changing. Having held him with some affection at one stage, even getting him to educate his grandchildren, Tiberius ended up imprisoning Agrippa when he was overhead wishing for the emperors death so his friend, Caligula, could become emperor. But I'm not aware of Pilate having any involvement in the affair or even any dealings with Caligula. Here, however, he tries to separate them as Tiberius' bidding and Caligula makes it clear that once Tiberius is gone, Pilate will not be viewed favourably. According to Josephus Pilate was deposed (by Vitellius) and it was around the time of Tiberius' death, but Josephus seems to suggest that Tiberius died whilst Pilate was en route not beforehand.

    Here however Pilate's efforts at keeping Caligula and Agrippa apart is not only not particularly effective, it also backfires by making Caligula so furious with Pilate that he threatens him about what will happen when Tiberius dies. Nevertheless, Tiberius gives Pilate a promotion and he and his wife prepare to return to Rome. Pilate's wife, Claudia, then dreams that Caligula will murder Tiberius, and next we know Caligula returns with news of Tiberius' death. Unsurprisingly he also informs Pilate that the promotion Tiberius offer has been rescinded. It's not quite the way Josephus tells it. According to him, Pilate massacred a bunch of Samaritan pilgrims , an incident which does seem to have been covered by A.D. despite all the stuff it find time to make up. This is a real shame, as it provides such vital context when looking at the gospels' portrayal of Pilate's role in Jesus' execution.

    Speaking of context, it's nice to see Joanna the wife of Chuza not only being depicted but actually getting a proper speaking role. She's mentioned twice in Luke's Gospel both times next to Mary Magdalene. In 8:3 she's listed as one of the women that Jesus has healed and who is now supporting him financially. But more significantly she is mentioned in 24:9-11 as one of the witnesses to the angelic appearance at the empty tomb.  Peter Chattaway has more on her role and of the fact that after years of neglect she finally got a speaking role in two different films on more or less the same day - the other being Killing Jesus (2015).

    Here we're introduced to her being reunited with Mary Magdalene and Joanna refers to the way "Jesus cured us" but then says that she "had heard Jesus was dead" - which overlooks that second appearance in Luke 24. We also meet Chuza who is concerned that his wife has come under "bad" influences recently. Almost immediately Joanna is then subjected to a sexual assault at the hands of Herod Agrippa (almost anticipating the #MeToo movement) only to be saved by Agrippa's sister Herodias, who is the wife of Herod Antipas. According to A.D. not only is Chuza head of Antipas' household, but Joanna works for Herodias directly as well.

    Incidentally, in researching this piece I cam across an extended feature on Chipo Chung, the actress who plays Mary Magdalene, in The Independent. I also came across this useful account of episode 7 from Cornerstone Brethern Church which features a useful family tree of the Herods. They have also covered some of the other episodes in the series.

    That was far more than I intended to write on this episode, but I suppose it was the one I have been waiting for from the start and the tie in with Roman history and a minor but pivotal character getting (almost) her first speaking role proved too much to resist.

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    Tuesday, March 06, 2018

    Samson and Delilah (Collins, 1922)

    1922 saw two films released about Samson and Delilah, but aside from the titles and the source material it is difficult to confuse the two. Korda's Samson und Delila mixes the biblical tale with a modern story, and fits in most of the biblical story's spectacular moments. The acting is portentous and stylised, the cast is vast, the sets enormous and the titular strongman towers over all who dare approach him.

    In contrast this version, directed by the UK's Edwin J. Collins, is an altogether more restrained and naturalistic affair. At only fifteen or so minutes in length it lacks its rival's ability to go into all the stories, yet nevertheless the way it does spend that quarter of an hour is very telling.

    The film consists of barely more than four scenes, and even the first of these is really only a prologue. Samson (W..D. Waxman) is shown in the opening shot praying. But as he does the Philistine High Priest and two of his soldiers walk into the rear of the shot and mock him. Moments later an unassuming Delilah (Madamoiselle De Valia) also enters from the same side, at the very back of the shot. When the soldiers "mock his God" he beats them to the ground and leaves the shot accompanied by an intertitle explaining that he has "received a divine instruction" and is to "wage war on the Philistines". Delilah clutches her chest and the camera cuts to a close up of her looking thoughtful. The shot ends in an iris - the first of many in the film's short run time, encouraging the audience to read the scene romantically even though this doesn't quite correspond with De Valia's face.

    Theologically there are a number of differences as well. As noted above Samson starts the film praying, on his knees in worship, something he rarely does in the biblical account. The second main scene consists of Samson sitting calmly surrounded by three young women looking at him adoringly. Delilah moves in, wins his heart and takes him back to her place for the third, and main scene. Here she persuades him to have a drink which, itself, would have invalidated Samson's Nazarite vow even without going near a pair of shears.

    I point these minor alterations out not so much as an exercise in theological nitpicking (fun though that can be), but because they are consistent with this film's calmer, more homely tone. Korda's Samson feels more wild and uncontrollable, almost an animal. There, the really remarkable thing about that Delilah's achievement is that she tames him, not in the way she gets him to reveal his secret. Here, however, things are more complicated. Initially Delilah's motives are hard to read, but when he loses interest in here, she throws herself at him once more in order to take her revenge on him.

    The homely tone is greatly increased by the way these two middle "scenes" are shot outdoors.1 The natural daylight and the way the actors' hair occasionally blows gently in the wind, makes their affair feel more romantic even as we know that Delilah is misleading him all along. It also seems somehow more intimate, thought less overtly sexual than the equivalent scenes in Korda's film. This third scene alone accounts for around half the film's total run time, and the comparatively gentle development of Delilah's seduction of Samson builds greater depth into their relationship and the way she gets him to reveal his secret. Even then as she sits shearing away his hair, her mixed emotions are palpable in the way she pauses and bites her lip before making that first decisive cut, and in the way her laughter once the deed is completed suddenly cuts short with momentary regret. Her spurned love has driven her to revenge, but even as she unleashes it she is struck by the thought she may have gone too far.

    In contrast, the final scene is dealt with relatively quickly and the final six shots are telling: a close up of Samson as he summons his energy one last time; a brief shot of one of the pillars; a close up of a horrified Delilah as she turns to witness what is happening; a brief wide shot of the pillars dislodging and the roof falling in; a close up of a now peaceful Delilah partially under the wreckage; and the corresponding shot of Samson. The whole sequence is over in 25 seconds, yet the abrupt pairing of the final two shots seemingly unites the two lovers in death like they never quite were in life. In captures the tragic tone of the original albeit in a somewhat different fashion. 

    Campbell and Pitts note how the film is based on Camille Saint-Saëns's opera "Samson et Dalila" (13), but in truth it is Korda's film that feels the more operatic. Collins' film finds a gentler, more muted key which manages to replace showy spectacle with something more emotional and heartfelt. Both films have their merits, but Collins' is the more effecting.

    This film is available to view onYouTube.

    1 - The actual number of scenes here is hard to work out. There is a nine minute sequence in total which all seems to take place on the same set, but the identity of the supposed locations seems to vary and be a little inconsistent. Thus whilst it feels like two scenes, it could perhaps be four or five,
    Campbell, Richard H. and Pitts, Michael R., (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980, Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press.

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    Saturday, March 03, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 7

    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

    Episode 7 of A.D. Kingdom and Empire picks up more or less where the previous installment ended with Saul rampaging his way through Jerusalem. Peter and the other Christians are, naturally enough, concerned, but decide to stay put at least for now.

    Meanwhile Caiaphas and Pilate have other concerns, namely the impending arrival of Emperor Tiberius in Jerusalem. This seems a curiously carefree piece of historical licence. Appearances by Roman emperors in Jerusalem were relatively few and far between, least of all from the famously reclusive Tiberius who didn't even visit Rome for a ten or so year period in which this episode is set. That said, given that the casting team managed to secure the typically enjoyable Kenneth Cranham for the role, Tiberius' brief ahistorical departure from Capri is forgivable. Cranham is no stranger to roles such as this having played Pompey in Rome (2005) as well as kind of Pilate figure in 2003's Man Dancin' (a sort of Scottish reworking of Jesus of Montreal).

    Philip meanwhile has headed to Samaria, been mugged on the outskirts of the city, and has fallen in with an associate of Simon Magus. Simon here is running a kind of early, open-air, stage show, but when he fails to produce a genuine healing, Philip steps up and performs a miracle. Unlike the Acts account, Peter and John don't turn up to steal Philip's thunder (which would have slightly undermined the positives of the series' multi-ethnic casting) and the focus is less on the fledgling church than on the unaffiliated population in general. Generally however it plays fairly close to Acts 8:9-25 and Philip's smack-down towards the end of the episode is welcome if only to put pay to Magus' hokey fakery (by which I mean his acting more than his magic).

    What's strange about the episode is the way the Saul storyline seems to lose its way. Having established a strong base in episode 6, it loses its rhythm in this episode due to the Tiberius storyline. Moreover whereas one might have thought that what with Stephen meeting his end (Acts 7) in episode 5 by episode 7 we might have got onto Saul's conversion from just one and a bit chapters later on. Alas no. At this stage the filmmakers were still hoping for a second series. Hopefully episode 8 will contain the necessary sojourn to Damascus. Cranham aside, this episode was pretty poor.

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