• 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.

    Sunday, January 20, 2019

    Visual Bible: Acts (1994)

    Back in 2010 I went through The Visual Bible: Matthew a few chapters at a time. But, aside from the odd post here or there, I've never looked at the sequel to that film, Acts. It's been a while since I watched the whole thing through but here are a slightly random collection of thoughts I have about this production.

    The first thing that strikes you when watching Acts is the tagged on prologue. Matthew has only a slight added on "this is the person who wrote this book" intro, and mainly promoted its theory that the Gospel was written by the similarly named disciple, by visual means, occasionally fading between the narrating Matthew, and the disciple years earlier, a wry smile by the older actor at certain points etc.

    This is nothing like the prologue here, where we are introduced to a boat in a storm (which is certainly not on the level of Master and Commander), and then someone needs a doctor, and lo and behold here's Dr Luke - and we're told he wrote the gospel and Acts and was a friend of Paul. Given that there's far from universal agreement that the author of these two letters / accounts was Paul's friend, and that its unclear whether Luke was a medical doctor, let alone the kind who might respond to "is there a doctor in the boat- type requests, this all seems a bit silly. Given the licensing agreement for using the text of the NIV was that the film "literally be the Word of God" [emphasis original] this is somewhat surprising (Marchiano 30).

    Visual Bible's 2003 Gospel of John pulls back from this type of approach. There's an opening title to put the potentially anti-Semitic material in context, and it closes memorably on the young John's face, but it never actually presents things in quite such a black and white way. I think I remembered liking the way it actually gave the film the same sense of mystery about the full identification of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as the gospel, but I would have to check. Whereas Richard Kiley played the aged Matthew, here we have Dean Jones playing Luke as an older man.

    Whilst Bruce Marchiano (who played Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew ) retains a cameo here as Jesus, many, if not all, of the disciples are played by different actors. This film does seem to be trying to be a sequel, rather than a separate entity like John. Its feel and particularly the use of the same actor as Jesus seem to support that theory, even though the other actors are different. The most noticeable change of actor is that of Peter. In the original he was played by a terrible actor, but he did manage to convey something of the uselessness of the Peter that comes across in the gospels. But here not only have they replaced this actual actor (and there's many reasons why they could have done this such as unavailability or the weakness of his acting), but they've also replaced the type of actor. No longer is is he feeble and stupid, now he is played by James Brolin - an actor so charismatic he was at one stage lined up to play James Bond. In contrast to Matthew's Peter, Brolin's is a leader of men, smiley, confident and so on. He's also older, which of course carries a connotation of being wiser, and more authoritative.

    Now this might be a deliberate attempt to show some of the difference between the gospels and Acts (and Luke does show Peter more positively than Mark, at least) but one of the most interesting dynamics in Acts is how the Simon of the gospels becomes the Peter of Acts and the early church. Even locating a radical turn around as a result of Pentecost would have been something, but Pentecost seems to have little effect on him, other than giving him an opportunity to preach.

    Acts continues the process Matthew started of trying to model the early Christ movement into the image of the promise keepers (a 1990s male evangelical movement). So there's even more hugging and inane laughing. and whereas in Matthew this at least seemed to be Jesus trying to bring them out of their shells a bit, here it's just imposing cheesy Christian man type Christianity onto the early church. Aside from the general feel there's also the choosing of the replacement disciple, where Joseph congratulates his rival in his victory in the style of a disappointed Oscar nominee, and is then commiserated by the man who drew the lots, the victorious Mathias and various others nearby. Perhaps worst of all is when in Acts 5 the disciples are released after a flogging and skip away laughing! This certainly wasn't a flogging in the mould of The Passion of the Christ.

    Another bit that grates with me is the part where Peter's shadow heals someone. The impression I get of reading this from Acts is that Peter's movement is experiencing growth, and as a result, he is more pressed, both physically but also for time. However, his anointing is being accelerated accordingly so that even as he walks past people they are healed. Instead, here they take a very literal approach, taking away the sweep of the past and the amazing healing, and reducing it to an alternative method of praying for someone that allows for a full hug later on. In other words, the means of conveying what is going on (the growth an popularity of the church) becomes the event in itself.

    The special effects, are rather weak in the scope used to depict some of the more supernatural elements. I would have loved to see what Pasolini would have done with some of the material, but here they are terrible. Jesus's ascension is poor and lacking creativity - confined by the film's literalist interpretation. Pentecosts's tongues of fire are similarly disappointing - both something very literal on the one hand, but also akin to a high school play on the other. The conversion of Saul is a little better in this respect with a few whirring point of view shots capturing the moment's disorientation.

    On another occasion though, when a more literalist, understated approach might have fitted the material, the films opts instead to cut back to Jones narrating. This is particularly disappointing for me as someone who has long found the Annias and Saphira  to be particularly significant. The text's lack of explanation for their deaths (it notes only that they dropped down dead) leaves room for speculation. Did God kill them? Peter? Or was it just a coincidence? Given all this, it was a bit disappointing that this was not depicted, particularly given that the most literal rendering of this would require no special effects at all. Perhaps they decided that it was too controversial to impress on people with a specific image, or perhaps they tried it a few times, and failed and budget didn't allow for more takes. This isn't the only time Visual Bible has copped out of dealing with an odd passage, I remember feeling similarly disappointed when Matthew narrated the passage after Jesus dies where random men in their tombs are resurrected and walk round Jerusalem. Having Kiley/Jones narrate these passages is a bit of a cop out - if you're planning to produce a visual Bible it feels a little like sweeping the difficult passages under a rug to just have them narrated.

    The camerawork here does seem to be a little more interesting here than before, despite Marchiano's assertion that the film used "No great camera angles, no fancy acting, no dazzling effects — just Jesus and the word" (Marchiano 27)

    Jones, Brolin and Henry O. Arnold who plays Saul/Paul generally do a good job playing their parts, but as with Matthew, the project itself makes things a little stilted. Matthew however had a groundbreaking performance from Bruce Marchiano at it's core - a Jesus whose smiling "Jesus in jeans" type Christ broke the mould of previous cinematic incantations and which has influenced to a degree most of the versions that have followed (Marchiano 16). But Acts lacks this crucial USP. Whilst being the only word-for-word production of Acts does mean it is still unique, it lacks the draw that Matthew had, and suggests that had Visual Bible had the funds to film more of the good book it may not have had the same reception as the original movie.

    Marchiano, Bruce (1997) In the Footsteps of Jesus: One Man's Journey Through the Life of Christ. Eugene, Oreon: Harvest House.

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    Saturday, January 12, 2019

    Untangling the Pathé Passion Plays

    I've been promising for a while to write a post disentangling the various Pathé Passion Plays made during the turn of the twentieth century. The films are most widely known due to the 2003 Kino-Lorber/Image Entertainment joint DVD release with From the Manger to the Cross, although obviously they are also available on YouTube. However, both the DVD and that YouTube link claim that the version of the film they have is from the period 1902-1905. Having a range of years is, in itself, a bit odd, and what's more subsequent research suggests that their dating is incorrect.

    Pathé's first Jesus film was released in 1899. Gaumont produced their first Jesus film at around the same time. Over the years they evolved it and remade it such that the final version wasn't completed until 1914. By which time it's style will have been looking very mannered, though that didn't prevent subsequent re-releases. This development took two different forms. One the one hand, there was the creation of new scenes to complement the original ones. This, for example, is why a time range of 1902-05 is often ascribed to the film. The first scenes were shot in 1902 and released but new material was being filmed and gradually made available as things progressed.

    On the other hand, there was also the refilming of material that had already been filmed before. Indeed, within that 15 year period there were four distinct series, one in 1899, one in 1902-05, one in 1907 with the final incarnation in 1914. For each of these material was re-shot, often improved in certain ways, such as the creation of more impressive sets - something that became a key part of the Pathé brand - larger numbers of actors, improvements in camera quality, and variations in location. At the same time there is a remarkable consistency in terms of composition and ideas, with various scenes being recreated in almost exactly the same fashion from version to version.

    Three further obstacles hamper the progress of those trying to get to the bottom of this situation. Firstly, there is range of different titles given to the different editions. The films have come to be known as The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ in English or La vie et passion de notre Seigneur Jésus Christ in French, but the shorter La vie et passion de Jésus Christ or even La vie de Jésus or The Passion Play have also been used.

    Secondly, there is the fact that Pathé gave distributors and exhibitors the opportunity to pick and choose which scenes they wanted to display. So a theatre owner could choose just to show the nativity scenes, or run a shorter version of the film and not have to pay for the whole thing. This is a totally different mindset to how cinema is distributed today. Given that so many copies of the film have been lost over the years it's hard to work out what is happening with various different fragments and run times of similar, but slightly different looking material.

    Lastly there are also various red-herrings. The film's use of colour is much discussed, but it's unclear when this first began (though it was certainly fairly early) or at what stage the colour was added to the various remaining fragments of material we have today. The film's artistic choices in terms of a central, fixed, camera became such a typical part of Pathé's house style, and Pathe's success in this era was so substantial, that it came to be seen a something primitive that later filmmakers evolved on from, rather than a creative choice. But look at a variety of 1890s and 1900s films and you'll soon see that many other approached to camera positioning and use were in evidence. And then there's the use of intertitles, which can date from far later and can themselves contain incorrect information; the release of intermediary versions; and the quality of the print which can make a newer film look far older to the uninitiated than a pristine print of an old version. A further complication is that the film continued to be chopped about, repackaged, recycled and re-released under new titles well into the sound era. I have a VHS at home which calls the film Son of Man (1915) but which comes from a release after it was "hand-colored by Nuns" in 1928.

    Anyway, there's been a great deal of work into these films over the last few years, not least by Alain Boillat and Valentine Robert, Dwight Friesen, and Jo-Ann Brant, all of whom have essays in David Shepherd's book "The Silents of Jesus". Between them they break down and de-lineate the four films, which I'll summarise here with references to the relevant page in Shepherd's book:

    Little is known of this film. It contained 16 tableaux (p.27) and the odd scene may be included in these films I discussed back in 2006 (though I stand by very little that I wrote in that post and I think most of those are from later versions). The director is not known, but it's possible that it was Ferdinand Zecca who first joined Pathé at this time.

    This is the version that the Image/Kino DVD claims to be, but it appears they are mistaken. We can forgive them - it they had not painstakingly restored this film and made it widely available, the subsequent research which has cleared things up a little might not have happened. There was a VHS release in 1996 by Hollywood’s Attic (31). In any case, it was directed by Ferdinad Zecca and his assistant / co-creator Lucien Nonguet. As the time range suggests this was the most evolutionary stage. The 16 original tableaux were reshot - some longer some shorter - and new titles were added (p.27). Then over the following three years additional tableau were created, taking the eventual total to 32 (p.27).

    This is the version that is available on the Image/Kino DVD, or at least that is one of them because two very, very slightly different versions exist, one in black and white and one in colour, though the differences extend to marginal variations in composition, not just the use of colour (p.79f). The number of tableaux in this version are hard to number with precision. Boillat and Robert state 37; Friesen cites 39 (p.79), but only lists 35. In many ways Zecca seems to be responding to his friend and rival Alice Guy's 1906 Jesus film (p.87-92) as evidenced by the increased percentage of outdoor footage at a time Pathé was increasingly building its reputation on its sets (as evidenced by the now prominent Pathe logo on several of them). The film has been discussed in many places at length, so I'll say no more on this for now.

    In contrast to the previous two or three stages, the fourth and final film was directed by Maurice-André Maître. It's this version which was re-released as Son of Man in 1915 and again after 1928 and for several years was available on VHS from Nostalgia Family Video. As you might expect everything here is bigger and better. Abel claims that there were 75 tableaux, but Boillat and Robert, writing more recently reduces this figure to 43 (p.27). Brant notes how his use of "deep staging and misè en scene "intensify the pathos", "dramatize the logic", provide a "more complicated visual experience" and "liberate his story" (158). Again he uses more outside scenes, bigger crowds and scenery, but he uses this to increase his depth of field.

    I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion over the various films - I must admit it's still not entirely clear to me, and still I watch  the DVD I discussed back in 2006 and long to know the story of how what seems to be a jumble of fragments came to be assembled in this way. In writing this post I also sat down and watched the two later films together in parallel, pausing one or the other to keep the episodes in sync. That in itself was enough of an interesting exercise to make this worthwhile.

    1 - Abel, Richard (1994) The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, Berkeley: University of California Press. p.320

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    Tuesday, January 01, 2019

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2018

    It's that time of the year when everyone is doing a review so for the second year running I thought I'd do one here as well, not least because it's been a fairly eventful year in the world of the Bible on film. After all it's not often that there are four Bible films in one year, even if one is a Netflix special.

    For me the highlight of the year was Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. I enjoyed it so much I forgot that it still hasn't been released in the US due to the Weinstein affair. Apologies for those of you in North America, but personally I think it's worth the wait, but then it's always good, and quite rare, to get to see a Bible film in a cinema. And it's an interesting film which is why I added a couple of extra posts on it even after writing my review.

    The same could not be said of another film that got released in Lent. Paul Apostle of Christ starring James Faulkner may have had the odd theatrical performance in the UK, but otherwise it was a much more US driven release. There's something a little strange about that given both Faulkner and his co-stars Joanna Whalley and John Lynch are all British. There were quite a few bits about this one I liked, not least the almost opening shot tracking Luke (Jim Cavaziel) through the night time streets of Rome.

    The third film to be released in cinemas somewhere in Lent was Pureflix's Samson. I didn't get to see that one when it came out, and I must confess I still haven't seen it yet, though no-one has argued that I got anything wrong in my speculative non-review. That was my most popular post of the year. Alas, though, there was no sign of DJ Perry's final entry in The Quest TrilogyThe Christ Slayer. Maybe we'll see it in 2019.

    What did get, rather unexpectedly was Netflix's The Last Hangover. Of the three new Bible films I did see I think this was probably the weakest. It wasn't terrible and had a few laughs in it, and, to be fair the concept was fairly amusing, but ultimately it always felt like a skit stretched way too thinly. If you're the kind of person that gets offended by the more out there portrayals of Jesus I would steer clear.


    The main news on the books front was the publication of "The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film" which featured my chapter "Can we Try That Again: The Fate of the Biblical Canon on Film". There are some great writers amongst my fellow contributors (Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh, Jon Solomon and editor Richard Walsh) and I've really enjoyed the chapters I've read so far.

    T&T Clark also released, "Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings" edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum, David Shepherd and Michelle Fletcher.

    There was also a book edited by Helen Bond called "The Bible on Television" looking at TV Bible documentaries. This included contributions from filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, presenters such as Robert Beckford as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Bond herself. It was a busy year for Bond, having ticked off the theory she went on to front a TV documentary of her own with Joan Taylor (theological adviser on Mary Magdalene). Jesus' Female Disciples went out at Easter in the UK on Channel 4.

    Having not received review copies for "The Bible on Television" or ""A New Hollywood Moses", this year's book review (and I tend to find time to do these is quite limited as it takes a lot of work to do them properly) was The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak. Whilst it didn't cover any biblical films in much depth, it gave some interesting discussion to recent close bedfellows such as Xena and the new(ish) Spartacus series, as well as films such as Ninth Legion. It was well worth a read even if a lot of the films being discussed are a bit more trashy than your typical biblical film (though DeMille fans might argue otherwise).


    I ended last year's post by making a couple of resolutions, so I thought I would revisit them here. I tend to see resolutions as being more useful when they are a positive act of doing more of something, rather than stopping doing something and my ones from last year were a - to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. and b- to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I had a degree of success in both. Despite viewing 400 films this year (including a lot of shorts) I still find it difficult to watch all the films I would like to, and so didn't hunt out as many female filmmakers as I'd like to. I'm going to roll this one over for 2019, something that should be made easier by Kino-Lorber's release Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers which is now available on Netflix.

    In terms of my own book, well, I've only partially ticked this one off as well. I had a list of films I still need to cover, and I managed to review all of them, but then when it came to pulling it all together I realised there were several films I thought I had reviewed which in fact I hadn't. So those are now done as well and I have 115-120 reviews, some of which still need a lot of work, and some of which need culling, but it feels like it's getting there. Writing a book is all well and good, but getting it published, well it feels like that will be the bigger challenge. Time will tell.


    Lastly, there's just time to mention my top ten new posts of 2018. I did a separate post for this last year but thought I've merge it all into one this time around.

    1. Samson [1245 views]
    2. Paul, Apostle of Christ [658 views]
    3. Mary Magdalene [505 views]
    4. The Last Hangover [276 views]
    5. Book Review: "The New Peplum" [170 views]
    6. Jesus' Female Disciples [108 views]
    7. Xena: The Giant Killer [108 views]
    8. Giuda (1911) [103 views]
    9. Judas in Mary Magdalene [89 views]
    10.Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film [77 views]

    A few points on this. Overall it seems that, no doubt thanks to the four biblical films being released, my top posts did a little better this year. Last year the leading post only had 323 views. This year the top three all eclipsed that. But by the time you get down to the lower places things have evened out a bit more. If you want to look at last years stats or see my top ten posts of all time you can see those here.

    The appearance of two posts in particular make me happy. Firstly my review of Giuda (1911) which is not widely available. It screened in Bristol this year, and hardly anyone has ever reviewed it, so it as nice that the piece has been seen more widely, as I am turning into a silent film geek. Secondly my post "Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film" snuck into the top ten. This felt like something of a rally cry and something I'm increasingly looking to put across is just how many top filmmakers have explored this area and how there are such diverse ways of approaching the subject.