• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, December 14, 2018

    Mesih (Jesus, the Spirit of God, 2007)

    Nader Talabzadeh's Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007) is the first Islamic film about Jesus. One of the reasons that a Muslim film about had not been done before was because the Sunni form of Islam does not permit portrayal of prophets, indeed the hadith discourages portrayal of all humans and animals in general. Secondly however, the Qu'ranic material about Jesus (who it calls Isa) does not fall so conveniently into entire books as it does in the Bible, or even in the same way as the Qu'ran treats other Islamic prophets such as Noah, who have their own surah (71).

    To produce his Islamic Jesus film, Talabzadeh turned to another text, the Gospel of Barnabas. The origins of this gospel are unclear. There are mentions of a gospel bearing Barnabas' name from even before the formation of the canon in the fourth century, but there are few compelling reasons to believe that this is the same text we have today. Tales abound of the book being secreted away in a fourth century pope's private library, but there's little news of it until its re-emergence in the seventeenth century.

    It's perhaps no surprise, then, the text we have today is fairly unusual. It's far longer than any of the canonical gospels, and contains almost all of the material from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as some that is unique. Moreover it contains a number elements at odds with the traditional portrayal of Jesus. Most notably Jesus goes out of his way to make it clear that (in contrast to Christian teaching) he is not divine. There is also a chapter (135) with strong echoes of Dante's seven circles of hell, as well as numerous predictions about the future coming of Muhammad scattered throughout the text.

    Perhaps most controversially Barnabas expands on the Qu'ran's implication that Jesus was not crucified (surah 4:157). Instead both the text and the film have Jesus taken up to the third heaven. while back on earth Judas is transformed into Isa's likeness and is crucified in his place. At the time of its release Talabzadeh spoke about his intention "to make a bridge between Christianity and Islam, to open the door for dialogue" (Breitbart). It's notable, then, that whilst Talabzadeh does include this passage, he also includes a very abridged version of the Christian account of Jesus' death. Films with multiple endings, such as Wayne's World (1992) and Run Lola, Run (1998), proliferated in the 1990s but this is surely the only religious film to have tried such an approach. Both sequences are introduced with a subtitle, firstly "Continuation of events according to the Christian narrative" and then shortly afterwards "Continuation of events according to Islamic sources and the Gospel of Barnabas".

    The ending here, more akin to Freaky Friday (2003) than holy writ, is one that will strike those unacquainted with Barnabas as a little odd. But then the same might also be said by those who are unfamiliar with the ending of the canonical gospels. The idea of God replacing Jesus' body with that of Judas is no more inherently strange than the idea of God replacing Jesus' lifeless body with one that has been transformed and resurrected.

    There are numerous other moments in the film which will raise eyebrows with those familiar with the Christian versions of the story, which are also taken straight from the pages of Barnabas. For example, the inclusion of Barnabas the man as one of Jesus' twelve disciples (ch.14); the moment when Caiaphas bows before Jesus to worship him (93); the scene where the Roman Senate pronounces, for Jesus' sake, that he is neither God nor the son of God (98); or, the way that what condemns Jesus in the Sanhedrin is his assertion that the Messiah will be a descendant of Ishmael, not Isaac (208), all of these are to be found in the Gospel of Barnabas. Perhaps most oddly is the scene when Jesus is asked decide if a woman should be stoned for adultery. Instead of just writing in the sand, he creates a mirror in the sand, which one accuser looks into and is driven mad with the horror he sees therein. It's a scene reminiscent of parts of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a film which Talabzadeh admires even if he is critical of its theology.

    Gibson's film was, of course, heavily criticised for its anti-Semitism and sadly the same criticism could also be levelled at Mesih. Some of this comes from the Gospel of Barnabas itself. It's also possible that some of this might be coloured by the ill feeling between Iran and modern-day Israel. Whichever way, when Pilate falters about passing sentence on Jesus one of the priests shouts out "we take full responsibility for his blood" which if not a direct quote of the Matt 27:25 passage Gibson included, certainly seems like a reasonably accurate paraphrase. Moments later the narrator say that "God set a seal on the cruel hearts of the Children of Israel". Indeed, across the film in general, the Romans, bizarrely, seem to almost support Jesus, whereas the Jewish leaders are seen as the full instigators of his death. Furthermore the moment when a Jewish High Priests kneels, bows before Jesus and hails him as "My God" will, quite understandably, cause offence in some circles.

    In a few places the filmmakers add dramatic flourishes of their own which are particularly interesting in this respect. Firstly, Gamaliel the Jewish rabbi known to us from the Talmud and the Mishnah as well as the Bible's book of Acts appears in one of the first scenes featuring the Jewish leaders. In Acts 5 his tolerant laissez-faire policy of leaving the Jesus movement to run it's course seems like almost pro-Christian wisdom, but here, whilst the tolerance element remains, both Judaism and Christianity are held to be in error, and his word come across as more wrong-headed than wise.

    Similarly 'brought forward' is St. Paul, or Sha-oul, whose campaign of terror against the followers of Jesus begins with him murdering the newly raised Lazarus. Again, given Saul's role in spreading what Talabzadeh sees as false accounts of Jesus, this seems like an attempt to discredit him, though one that is consistent with his initial appearance in Acts.

    Similarly, the filmmakers also give additional validity to the Gospel of Barnabas by not only introducing Barnabas as one of the twelve, but also by showing him at various points in the film, as scribbling down the events as they are happening. Some of the more traditional Bible films have adopted a similar approach, the use of the older and younger Matthew characters in The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993) or Luke's appearance in A.D. (1985) as well as various other scenes where Matthew or John are seen taking their pens with them or noting things down. On the one hand, these touches are light propaganda, not least because they are reasonably unlikely, yet somehow I always find this a nice touch, and here's its no exception.

    One particularly interesting element of the film is Jesus' appearance. Isa is played by Ahmad Soleimani-Nia, a veteran of the Iranian army. As this footage was also used as part of an 1000-minute TV series, Soleimani-Nia had to maintain his Christ-like appearance as Jesus for seven years in case they needed to shoot additional scenes (Fleishman).

    Soleimani-Nia is strikingly different from any of the film Jesuses that had gone before him. For one thing Isa's long blond curly hair seems far more 'western' than those watching an Islamic take on Jesus might expect. Whilst he would not easily be mistaken for the Jesus of Christian art, there certainly seems to have been some influence; Talabzadeh did, after all, study at New York's Columbia University Film School for several years. Certainly this blond look makes Jesus stand out from the film's other characters who look more typically Iranian than he does. That said Soleimani-Nia's appearance could not be described as western either. Thios makes him a striking figure, but also give him an air of the other-worldly, both at home in this world, but also distinct from it. Whilst none of the canonical gospels, the Qu'ran or the Gospel of Barnabas give a physical description of Jesus, there is some precedent for Isa's appearance from the Hadith. The Hadith of al-Bukhari (vol.4 no.168) describes Jesus as having "curly hair and a reddish complexion" (Tatum 221). This too is different from the film's final portrayal, it may well be a factor in how he is portrayed.

    In contrast the rest of the characters feel far more authentic. Just as Soleimani-Nia was a former member of the Iranian military, the rest of the actors seem much more believably like the kind fo people Jesus may rubbed shoulders with. Not only are they more ethnically similar, but there's an ordinariness to them that is absent from the majority of western Jesus films. Similarly, the muted, almost monochrome, costumes feel more authentically like the kind of things peasants of Jesus' time may have worn, as opposed to the bright colours of Hollywood's grandest biblical epics.

    Perhaps the most interesting visual aspect of the film, however, is its frequent use of slightly below eye-level camera positions. Filmmakers often drop in the occasional low-level shot to emphasise a certain character's power. Here it is not nearly quite so deferential, but it is used frequently throughout the film. The extent to which it is used suggests that Isa's superiority is not about a certain context or a particular moment, it's something more integral to who he is. The subtlety of the position indicates that whilst Isa is special compared to those around him, he's not that special. He's not a god, just a prophet.

    And it's that which seems to be at the heart of this film. Overall it is surprisingly faithful to its source, but that source is clearly the Gospel of Barnabas rather than the canonical gospels. It's this that makes the film so interesting amongst biblical films, even if the extra interpretative step that places between it's viewers and the original events themselves will not be welcome in all quarters.

    - Breitbart (2008) "'Islamic Jesus' hits Iranian movie screens" Jan 13. Retrieved from Web Archive - http://web.archive.org/web/20080115212748/http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=080113231632.1q3rt654&show_article=1

    - Fleishman, Jeffrey (2008) "An Iranian's vision of Jesus' life stirs debate" in Los Angeles Times April 29. Retrieved from Web Archive - http://web.archive.org/web/20120113224042/http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-fg-jesus29apr29,1,3806018.story

    - Tatum, W. Barnes (2004) Jesus: A Brief History (Blackwell Brief Histor. London: Blackwell


    Saturday, December 01, 2018

    Quo Vadis (1951)

    Revisiting Quo Vadis (1951) after all this time I feel I should somehow have more enthusiasm for it - it was nominated for eight Oscars™, after all. How many Bible movies can boast that? Yet for all it's fabulous colours and spectacular crowd scenes; despite Miklós Rózsa much lauded score; and despite, even, Peter Ustinov's memorable take on Nero, I find myself strangely unmoved by it. I don't want to spend too much time on that - as ever I'd rather dwell on the positives and the aspects of it that do catch my attention - but, I guess, the central love story seems to lack the necessary drama or gravitas to pull everything off. Robert Taylor's Marcus Vinicius is far from the first hero to start off a film as a jerk only to reform his ways, but somehow I can't buy into the idea that forcibly removing a woman from their home and throwing them into the middle of one of Nero's orgies would ever fan the flames of love in a fair maiden's heart. Perhaps it's just the lack of action scenes, but watching it again with the kids, I'm a little embarrassed at how, well, boring it is.

    Which isn't to say that there's not a few interesting things to discuss as well. For one thing, it wasn't until I re-watched this that it became apparent just how specifically the Coen Borthers parody this film in particular in Hail Caesar (2016). The opening shots of the Coens' film-within-the-film is practically a shot for shot homage to the opening of Quo Vadis. View these two short clips from the two films back to back and you will see what I mean. This is also film with the overly long trumpets which was parodied so mercilessly in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).

    It's all too easy looking back on it almost seventy years later to only recall those films to affectionately mock it, but, of course it had huge impact at the time. Not only did it top the 1951 box with over $20M in worldwide income, it also inspired films like The Robe (1953) and a handful of other Roman-Christian epics that were to follow.

    Yet as much as later films have reused, recycled and reinvented aspects of it, the film itself drew on works that went before it. Firstly there are the earlier adaptations of Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1896 novel. There were three silent versions of the film made in 1901, 1912 and 1924. The 1912 film (available to view online) is arguably the most famous - some credit it with being the first true epic. If nothing else it's this one, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, I feel most guilty about for not having seen. That might be something I put right shortly.

    But as much as Mervyn Le Roy's 1951 retelling derives from both Sienkiewicz's novel and the various early adaptations, it also is influenced to some degree by another film. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932) clearly draws a great deal from "Quo Vadis", not least it's plot, though presumably changes just enough to avoid a lawsuit. There's Nero and Poppaea and a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian girl. Despite the furore caused by the film it performed reasonably well, but more significantly it provided a bit of a template for how a proper adaption of the novel could be handled. Replace Charles Laughton with Peter Ustinov to play a similarly self-obsessed camp Nero, tone down the orgy a bit and hope the spectacle grabs the audience's attention. DeMille's film forms the bridge between the novel, the 1912 film and LeRoy's remake.

    Having said that I'm not sure how to read the portrayal of Nero and, to a lesser extent Patricia Laffan's Poppaea. Ustinov plays Nero as a vain toddler without anyone to keep him in check. Leo Genn's Petronius peddles a fine line in providing sharp answers that cut both ways, only Nero cannot even conceive of the possibility that what sounds like praise might in fact be an insult. Ustinov was nominated for an Oscar™ (as was Genn) but lost out to Karl Malden's turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. His performance is memorably, but mainly for its over-the-topness. Of course, Nero was over the top, but Ustinov channels Laughton as much as anything. More to the point, despite his toned down sexuality, these days it just feels a little bit transphobic. Ultimately it also overshadow's Laffan's Poppaea a bit too much, at least to the extent that I would have liked to see a bit more of her character (who is, after all rather more instrumental in how events transpire between Deborah Kerr's Lygia and Marcus Vinicius). That said I also suspect that this would also have had it's problems.

    Having come this far and only just mentioned Deborah Kerr, I feel I owe her the last word. I don't really know where this ranks amongst her films, but in the orgy scene she is particularly outstanding. As Marcus makes his arrogantly ham-fisted attempts to seduce her she bristles at the very prospect. On the one hand she remains calm and prim and proper. On another level she is clearly appalled and horrified at what is happening to her. And on perhaps another, part of the disgust she feels is because she is attracted to Marcus despite her misgivings. The film doesn't really make as much of her as it could. Marcus's story arc consists of his conversion; Petronius' his rebellion; but for Lygia (and I suppose, Paul and Peter) there's little to no story arc. As Christian's their characters have already reached their goal and the film, unlike, say Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) gives little consideration to the possibily of regression (or even progression) following a conversion experience.

    Despite my intentions, I seem to have ended on a negative note. Undoubtedly, there are things to admire about Quo Vadis. If you havent already seen it, you really should, but, perhaps only once.