• 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


    Monday, August 27, 2018

    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament, 1962)

    One and Two Maccabees are an unusual pair of books. The two 'deuterocanonical' books appear in what is commonly known as the Apocrypha - a group of texts which Catholic and some Orthodox Christians consider inspired, but which Protestants class as merely 'useful'.1 Accordingly, precious few filmmakers have considered it worthy of adaptation, a 1911 Italian film I Maccabei and the oddly named Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament, 1962) directed by Gianfranco Parolini.

    The first Book of Maccabees tells the story of Mattathias and his five sons John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan, but the second zooms in to focus on the life of Judas. It's clear that the author of 2 Maccabees, at least, considered Judas  to be the most important member of his family. Parolini's version of the story, however, chooses a different path. Instead of making Judas the main hero, it opts for his brother Simon, casting Brad Harris in the role. By this point in his career Harris had already played Samson, Goliath and Hercules and was rapidly becoming an established peplum star.

    Perhaps with a nod to the biblical pecking order it's Judas (Djordje 'George' Nenadovic) we encounter first. Already the conquering Syrians2 see him as a threat so he has slipped into Jerusalem disguised as one of their soldiers. This is not merely a convenient disguise, however, it's also an indicator of the way the film will portray Judas from here on in. Judas is seen as something of an extremist, a man of violence. Whilst he is undoubtedly one of the sheep of Israel he is very much dressed in Syrian wolf's clothing, both literally and figuratively.

    It may be that, just like Ray's King of Kings the previous year, the filmmakers decided they needed a violent rebel to contrast with their more peaceable hero, but it's also possible they worried that Christian majority audiences in both Italy and America might not accept a hero called Judas. In any case, Judas' violent approach leaves a certain inevitability to his untimely death, and by its end, the film will have shown just how antithetical to true faith it considers this overly violent 'Syrian' approach to be.

    Yet at some point, the producers of the film seem to have abandoned the idea of contrasting the two brothers quite so strongly. The only English language version of the film available at the moment is cut down from 115 minutes down to a mere 88. Not only does that version's 4:3 cropped screen ration and poor quality transfer ruin a lot of the fine sets, but the cuts to the running length ruin the story arc leaving a confusing mess.

    Gone, for example, is Simon's critical first scene. Whereas his brother Judas had already been fighting the Syrians, Simon has been becoming friends with them. We first meet him dressed in Greek-style dress socialising with his soon to be wife Diotima and his best friend Antenone. As the conflict between the Syrians and the Jews intensifies the dynamics between these three become all the more interesting. All three represent the more peaceable, moderate side of their people and are angered when their own countrymen inflict suffering on their friends. Early on in the film Simon is shot by an arrow and Antenone nurses him to recover.

    Later on, (in another scene cut from the English language DVD release), Antenone is executed by Jewish forces much to Simon's dismay. This scene is itself particularly striking. Firstly, it represents one of a number of explicit miracles in the film. Whereas most Bible films from this point on have given their miracles a certain degree of ambiguity, in order to avoid alienating sceptics, by this point in the film there has already been a ghostly image of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Later on a lightning strikes and destroys the gates of Joppa in response to Simon's prayer allowing his men to capture the city.

    In this case whilst Antenone is killed his spirit is shown to rise up in bodily form. This not only reflects the theological development we find in 2 Maccabees of belief in some kind of afterlife3, but also hands it to Antenone, a peaceable Gentile, rather than to the Jewish Mattathias, Judas or Jonathan. Whilst the absence of a resurrection for any of the Jewish heroes was not necessarily intended as a slight, certainly it re-affirms the film attempts to idealise a more compromising, peaceable approach over a specific religious conviction.

    Alternatively the point could be made that this longer cut attempts to de-Judaise these quintessentially Jewish heroes in order to portray their story as part of the journey towards a more "superior", "tolerant", Americanised Christianity. Of Mattathias and his five sons it is the one who is least Jewish and most au fait with the dominant cultural empire who is promoted to become the hero, and it is a non-Jew who is resurrected and later portrayed as something of a Christ figure in the film's closing moments.

    Yet whilst the cuts made to the longer version do remedy some of these problems, they are disastrous in terms of narrative. Simon, Antenone and Diotima's friendships are the glue that hold the narrative together. Taken as a whole the first Book of Maccabees is not particularly easy to translate into a screenplay, not least because of the regularity with which the leading Maccabee is killed and replaced by one of his relations. Whilst choosing Simon as the lead representative of the family is unconventional, it does enable the script to develop the characters in interesting ways. Without these moments the story resorts to little more than that of a series of battles.

    It's been reported numerous times over the years that Mel Gibson is interested in filming a version of this story. It's not hard to see why it appeals to him. Given the source's guerrilla violence, extreme determination in the fave of persecution, factional backstabbing, and unlikely victories, it's plain enough that the story could easily be fashioned into a B.C.E. version of Braveheart. Whether that will result in a film any closer to the source material remains to be seen.

    1 - The original texts go back to the Greek Septuagint and were rejected in the formation of the Jewish Canon. They were however chosen to be part of the Christian Canon and remained so until the Reformation. Some parts of the Orthodox church, notably the Ethiopian Orthodox church, does not include the Books of Maccabees in their canon.
    2 - Whilst the film calls them Syrians and the text calls them ethnon (nations/gentiles) as the opening prologue to 1 Maccabees makes clear they were those from the Northern Greek/Syrian part of Alexander the Great's former empire known as the Seleucids.
    3 - See for example 2 Maccabees 6:23; 7:14; 7:23; 11: 23; 12:40-46. These ideas are far more developed in terms of some form of afterlife than any in the agreed canon.



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