• 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


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    Sunday, July 08, 2018

    The Story of Jacob and Joseph (1974)

    According to the Bible, Jacob was the man who founded the nation that later adopted his pseudonym - Israel - for itself. Yet there has never been a major film made about. There have however been a number of relatively minor films about him from the Greed entry in Louis Feuillade's Seven Deadly Sins series, to Lux Vide's 1994 Bible Collection version starring Sean Bean as Esau. In between, Marcello Baldi and Mario Landi attempted the task in the early sixties, whilst The Greatest Heroes of the Bible incorporated the story into their sweep of the Hebrew Bible in 1979.

    Arguably the most significant take on the story, therefore, is this made for TV special The Story of Jacob and Joseph (1974). As the title might suggest, it's very much a film of two haves distinguished only from films such as Samson and Gideon, by the handful of scenes that the two lead actors (Keith Michell as Jacob and Tony Lo Bianco as Joseph) share together.

    All in all it's actually a fairly decent effort. With the barren desert landscape, some nice compositions and reasonably high production values it's a competently made film bearing a few of the hallmarks of classic 70s cinema and few, if any, significant weakpoints. Moreover, despite the text's tendency to let the story get bogged down in detail, Ernest Kinoy's script manages to keeps things ticking along.

    The film's strongest point is the way it manages to draw out the parallels in the script that might otherwise be lost on modern audiences. In particular, the numerous similarities in the story between father and son - both men are dreamers ,but also seek to deceive. Due to their mothers they are given preferential treatment leading to a rift with their brothers on the one hand, but material gain and prosperity on the other, and eventually forgiveness and reconciliation win out.

    Kinoy's script cuts out various aspects of the original stories without such obvious parallels, the incidents with Dinah and Tamar, for example as well as the story where Jacob wrestles with God and the time Joseph wastes rotting in jail whilst the fickle baker forgets his plight. But these elements are also highlighted by the way director Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek) shoots corresponding scenes.

    Of particular note in this respect are the shots comprising Jacob and Joseph's dreams (the other character's dreams are not depicted), with the muting of diegetic sounds and flickering light. Both sequences also carry the suggestion that the interpretation of the scenes is somewhat subjective. Jacob in particular claims "God was here. He spoke to me." but the source of this may well just be some children playing high above him (but out of sight).

    The dream sequences are also the film's most significant moments of scepticism towards the supernatural. Dreaming aside, the stories of Jacob and Joseph are relatively free of God's direct action. There are no significant miracles or angelic appearances, only his apparent blessing on his chosen favourites. Jacob's comments are matched later when Joseph correctly interprets his cellmates' dreams. Whilst he initially acknowledges that "Interpretations come from God", but he also explains that he knew the three baskets of bread equated to three because he knew that the third day was "Pharaoh's birthday when all judgements are made". The film leaves open an array of possibilities.

    One other notable piece of pairing occurs, but this time between two women, Rebecca and Potiphar's wife. The film is largely shot using a static camera, but in two places it switches to shaky hand-held point of view footage which suggests the characters' anxiety and disorientation. Whilst Jacob and Joseph's dreams are necessarily subjective, it's interesting that the time the camera most clearly adopts a character's point of view it is in adopting a woman who loves one of the protagonists, but is ultimately left behind by them. No-one ever really asks what Rebecca's life was like once her favourite son was gone and she was left alone with her dying husband and brutish, resentful son. The film doesn't look to provide an answer to this, but these few early scenes do, briefly, direct a bit of light in that direction.

    In similar fashion, I find after watching it I'm left reflecting on the supposed greatness of Joseph's handling of the Egyptian drought. One of the film's most striking images is the long queues down one side of long but relatively narrow street. A seemingly imminent riot is only kept at bay by a meagre company of determined soldiers, their muscles straining to subdue and hold-back a starving crowd armed only with empty food baskets. Josephs rides down the road, surveying the starving mob but only seems to express any interest or concern when he spies his brothers.

    To me Pharaoh's application process for this job always seemed a little suspect, as does the way he somehow finds time to devote a considerable amount of effort, during a major national crisis, to devising overly-complex and somewhat sinister plots to test and punish his brothers. The argument has been made before that Joseph collected all the people's grain (Gen 41:46-49) and then basically used the famine to capture all their money and land and enslave both the Egyptians and those from the surrounding nations (Gen 47:13-21). Both the film and the Bible present these situation, without specifically condemning Joseph, but the chaos on the streets contrasted with Joseph's blinkered focus on his brothers rather than the starving Egyptians is a somewhat unsympathetic portrayal.

    Whilst it's hardly an outstanding entry in the canon, The Story of Jacob and Joseph is a competent effort and perhaps its biggest strength is its effort to remain rational and relatively impartial. It may not have the glitz and spectacle of films such as The Ten Commandments, but it is also relatively free of their agendas and embellishments of the text. And by using filmic techniques to highlight the parallels in the stories it feels like a film made in the service of the text, rather than to pursue their own agendas.

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