• 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, February 22, 2019

    Il figlio dell'uomo (1954)


    Il figlio dell'uomo (dir. Virgilio Sabel) is a rare film and an important one. It's rare, perhaps, because it was ahead of its time. Despite a burgeoning period of Italian Bible films in the early to mid-silent era, facism seemingly brought a stop to that with over thirty years passing between the last of the silent era Jesus films and 1950's Mater Dei. In Hollywood and elsewhere films based on the gospels were largely absent during the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War.

    But it's rarity is also perhaps a reflection on its style. Sabel and his cinematographer Oberdan Troiani created an expressionistic film that in places almost borders on the avant garde. Yet it's style is also what marks it as important. Sabel had been a documentary maker before being given the job of directing the film, twice wining awards for best short film (Atkinson, 63)

    Neo-realism with it's documentary-style footage had dominated the late forties in Italian cinema, and whilst it had already begun to lose a little of its appeal, it was still to the fore of public consciousness. Il figlio is very much a neo-realist film. In addition to its documentary feel and its black and white photography, it also used mainly outdoor locations and an unprofessional, proletariat cast. The opening credits announce that apart from a few of the major characters the "altri interpreti sono ...pescatori e contadini" (the other actors are...fishermen and farmers), the inhabitants of two local villages where much of the movie was filmed. The film's neo-realist credentials are only enhanced further by the choice of Renzo Rossellini, brother of the famous pioneer Roberto, and the man who had scored his brother's groundbreaking Roma, città aperta eight years earlier.

    Of course by the time Rossellini would get around to filming his own Jesus film, Il messia (1975) both he and the world in general had moved on from neo-realism, though many of its traits remain in the film nevertheless. Instead, when one thinks about Jesus films made in the neo-realist style one thinks of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964). There's little evidence, one way or the other, to suggest that Pasolini, filming ten years later, was influenced significantly by Sabel's film. I'm not aware of Pasolini mentioning Sabel in his interviews or writings on the subject, nor is there much to suggest its distribution was widespread enough that Paoloni would have been likely to see it.

    Furthermore what Sabel did was to apply neo-realist principles to his choice of subject. Similarities in the two works seem far more dependent on a common filmmaking philosophy than of conscious or unconscious derivation. That said there are a couple of moments in this film which seem particularly familiar. The most striking is Jesus' calling of the disciples. In Il figlio the scene takes place on a beach. As Jesus walks along the seafront, the camera cuts to each of the disciples in turn in the foreground with Jesus appearing over his shoulder. The scene is different in Il vangelo, Pasolini's calling of the disciples is a little more natural, yet it also takes place on a beach, and the scenes that immediately follow it show either Jesus striding around with his disciples scurrying about trying to keep up, or shots of him in the foreground with them in the background over his shoulder. Indeed Pasolini uses such compositions at various points in the film.

    That said, the film's neo-realist tendencies are about far more than similarities with latter films made after the end of the neo-realist period. Particularly significant in this respect is the way the film's opening images are close-ups of the "fishermen and farmers" who will perform the various the various parts in the film. At once this breaks the illusion (or at least significantly hampers its formation) of this being Jesus on screen. But it's also a clear marker that this is a film about ordinary people, made by ordinary people. There's relatively little presentation of hierarchy in this film, and what there is tends to be in the events leading up to Jesus' death. The disciples are called and named, but given no special role except for their attendance at the Last Supper, in Gethsemane, and Peter's later denial of Jesus. They are given no back story or motives. Jesus' only interaction with the central aspects of his Judaism are his clearing of the temple. Whilst both the shepherds and the magi appear in the nativity sequence, the camera is more interested in the peasants working in the fields with their animals than the wealthy, exotic, visitors from afar.

    Another element of the film that seems to emphasise the ordinary people in the story is its use of high and low camera positions. The low angles  have an empathy to them, a literal view from the ground; the high angles carry more of a sense of God looking down on all people in the same fashion.  Much of the crucifixion scene is shot from what appears at times to be Jesus' point-of-view, but at other times this seems not to be the case. Are we seeing these scenes from Jesus' point of view, God's perspective, or simply out own?

    The use of shots from Jesus' point of view are present throughout the film. One of the very first shots from Jesus' ministry is as crowds of people in need of healing crowd around him. It's a masterful shot because it conveys a sense of the crowd pressing in an a certain sense of claustrophobia, without imparting those to Jesus. We are not given his reaction so much as made to feel what our own might have been in that situation. Perhaps surprisingly it's a technique that would be used so rarely in Jesus films for the next half century. Whilst he shots from on the cross could be read as associating his perspective with that of the divine, the majority work to associate him with the other ordinary people. The camera treats him as it might do any other character. It's interesting to see the same technique (the PoV) being used to emphasise both his diving nature and his human one.

    Having said all this, Il figlio does breakaway from the classic traits of neorealist films in other significant ways, which are particularly telling in the opening sequence covering the Fall. For example, whilst neo-realism specialised in a documentary "feel", much of this sequence involves shots of animals, which seem far more like actual documentary footage. At the same time however these shots are juxtaposed with some of the film's most artificial scenes, most notably those of a model world globe emphasising creation and the universality of the stories that are being told. In another, an imposing wall of flame blocks off the way back to the Garden of Eden. Even our first vision of Adam - a rippled reflection on a pool of water - is somewhat artificial. Later Eve's image returns in a ghostly double exposure with Mary seconds after the annunciation.

    The annunciation itself, however, is notably low key. The news is delivered by a visible angel, but one plainly clad in white, in similar fashion to Pasolini's, without wings, a spiritual glow or a dazzling light. The visuals are similarly pared down when Jesus receives God's blessing at his baptism. There's no white dove, though there is a booming voice speaking the words from Mark 1:11, but this and the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 are rare examples of the explicitly supernatural. Tradition is frequently evoked - as when Veronica wipes Jesus' face with her cloth - but also stripped back - we are not then shown the cloth bearing a miraculous image of Jesus.

    The ministry section of the film is remarkably short (just 8 minutes between his baptism and triumphal entry) and mainly confined to teaching. The healing of the paralytic is the only miracle Jesus is shown performing, though a voice-over informs us of others. As with the Gospels, the resurrection occurs but is not documented.

    In between the triumphal entry, temple clearing and Last Supper are treated fairly briefly, in contrast to the relatively long treatment of Jesus' various appearances in front of the differing authorities. Throughout Sabel's camera has been at pains to emphasise the imposing nature of the imperial architecture and towering statues, from the declaration of the census through to the trial in Pilate's courtyard (with strong echoes of Antonio Ciseri's painting "Ecce Homo").

    That said the portrayal of Jewish people is somewhat uneven in the film. The most troubling aspect is the horned hat that Caiaphas wears, not uncommon in Jesus films before the Holocaust but not something I can otherwise recall afterwards. Also troubling is the way Jesus is slapped, thrown to the ground, has his beard tugged and is spat on, all whilst in Jewish custody. The references to Ciseri's painting have the effect though of minimising Jewish impact on Jesus' trials before Pilate. For much of it the crowd is obscured by the architecture and Roman bodies, as if shutting them out from the events that are happening. We see enough to realise the "crowd" is relatively small. When the camera does occasionally switch to the crowd, it's clear that whilst there are some voices condemning Jesus that a range of responses are taking place. The Jewish crowd is not acting as a single mob. Some call for Jesus' death, others just for Barabbas' freedom, but many stay silent. Significantly whilst the troublesome words "his blood be upon us" do appear they are spoken only by a single individual whilst those around him remain silent and stony faced. The issue of supposed Jewish culpability could have been handled better, but this treatment is certainly better than many.

    The violence at the hands of the Jewish authorities is also put into a degree of context by Jesus' treatment by the Roman soldiers. Aside from his crucifixion he also receives a lengthy flagellation at their hands and the camera lingering over the crown of thorns. Parts of the scene are shot from a towering and expressionistic high angle and dark shadow, numerous shots are again uncomfortable close-ups of the soldiers' jeering faces. As Barry Atkinson suggests, "the whipping and crucifixion scenes in Sabel's radical effort are, for the time it was made, unflinchingly graphic" (63). Jesus' final breath is accompanied by lightning, which is harnessed to give the moment an expressionistic feel, enhanced by an almost avant garde montage of brief, overlaid shots against a black background. Then as Mary cradles her son's lifeless body there's a flashback to the Last Supper and Jesus declaring "Questo il mio corpo...se uno mangia di questo pane vive eternal" ("This is my body...if anyone eats this bread they will live eternally")

    When the resurrection comes it's quietly at first and typically low key. A woman knocks on the disciples door, a tearful Magdalene mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener. Jesus shares breakfast on the beach and offers Peter a shot at redemption. Thomas has faith. The ascension scene, whilst feeling a little out of place with a floating Jesus double exposed against a cloudy sky, nevertheless still cuts to give us Jesus' point of view as he leaves the world behind. It's perhaps a metaphor for the film itself neither purely of one camp or another, but nevertheless a remarkable experience.

    I have already posted a scene guide for this film.

    =======
    Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967. London: Midnight Marquee Press.

    Labels:

    Sunday, February 17, 2019

    Il figlio dell'uomo - Scene Guide


    One of the films I mentioned in last week's list of Italian Jesus Films is 1954's Il figlio dell'uomo. My review is here, but I noted down the various scenes as I was watching it, so I thought I'd post these as a separate scene guide. If you're a detail-y kind of person (and we love them round here), then here's how I use citations in scene guides. Please note. The only version of this film I've been able to find is this online one, and there are no English subtitles.
    Creation and fall (Gen 2-3)*
    Annunciation (Luke 2:1-3; Luke 1:26-38)
    Birth of Jesus (Luke 4:21; Matt 2:11).
    John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-11)
    Teaching on Revenge (Matt 6:38-42)
    Healing a paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
    Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12)
    Teaching about the law (Matt 5:17-20)
    Bread of Life (John 6:25-59)
    Plot to kill Jesus (Mark 14:1-2)
    Question about marriage (Mark 10:1-12)
    Calling the 12 (Mark 3:13-19)
    Jesus predicts his death (Mark 10:32-34)
    Triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-11)
    Clearing temple (Mark 11:15-19)
    Last Supper (Mark 14:12-31)
    Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-50)
    Sanhedrin Trial (Mark 14:53-59)
    Peter's denial (Mark 14:66-72)
    Jesus is beaten & spat on (Mark 14:61-65)
    Pilate 1st trial (Mark 15:1-5)
    In front of Herod (Luke 23:6-12)
    Pilate 2nd Trial (Mark 15:6-15)
    Jesus whipped & mocked (Mark 15:15-20)
    Crucifixion (Mark 15:21-41)
    Resurrection (Luke 24:9)
    Mary & the gardener (John 20:11-18)
    Breakfast on the beach (John 21:12-19)
    Ascension (Luke 24:50-53)
    A Few Notes
    The film's opening credits are shown over various close ups of the people who will be playing some of the characters in the story, but once the film-proper starts then we see a close up of a Bible open on Genesis 2. There are then a number of intertitles, which only occur at the start of the film, with citations as follows:
    *Gen 2:7; Gen 2:25; Gen 3:1; Gen 3:22.

    At two points in the film, a few passages are mixed together. The first is during the healing of the paralytic. This is immediately preceded by Jesus being crowded by people needing healing. This occurs at various points in the gospels, and what happens here is a bit of a conglomeration, so I've gone for the reference in Mark 2:1 to cover that. We then go inside the house where the healing will occur where Jesus teaches on revenge (Matt 6:38-42) which is interrupted by the man's friends breaking through the ceiling.

    I've put Jesus's death and crucifixion all down as Mark 15:21-41, but the sequence draws on a number of different gospels to include six of the phrases Jesus said on the cross. "Father forgive them" (Luke 23:34), "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), "Why have you forsaken me" (Mark 15:34); "Woman, your son..." (John 19:26-27), "I thirst" (John 19:28), "Into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). Having said that, my Italian is not brilliant and the sound quality here is pretty poor, so I'm not 100% certain the first one is there, nor that "It is finished" is absent.

    Labels: ,

    Friday, February 15, 2019

    Cain and Abel (2009)


    I discovered a Korean series on the UK version of Netflix last week (just before it expired...) which has been given the English title of Cain and Abel, but is set in modern times. At 20 episodes long, the first of which is over an hour long, I only managed to watch the first episode, but thought I'd post my findings for anyone interested enough to want to give it a look.

    The series takes place in a hospital and is centred around two brothers, both of whom are doctors. One (Lee Seon Woo), seems to be some superstar surgeon that swans in to the hospital from elsewhere for special surgeries; whereas the other (Lee Cho-in) prefers to work in the emergency room, where homeless people turn up for treatment with life threatening conditions, only for him to swoop in and offer for payment for their treatment to be "added to his account".

    On top of this both of the brothers' parents are also at the hospital. The father, somewhat oddly for a show based on a patriarchal story, is in a coma (so far at least) and so present and yet somehow absent. I suppose this might be some kind of metaphor for the way Adam seems strangely estranged from his children, given that, according to the most popular reading of the text, there are only four people on earth at that point in the story.

    More interesting is the mother character, who has some sort of senior medical role at the hospital - at least that's what I infer from the fact she wears a white coat and keeps walking into rooms barking orders at younger looking doctors. She is also somewhat estranged from Lee Cho-in. The two have to talk in a professional context, but both there is conflict, both personally and professionally.

    All of which brings me to the naming of this show. Korea has a large Christian community, but I have no idea to what the Bible has permeated the wider culture, which gives me a range of questions. Is the 'Cain and Abel' tag a literal translation, or something that Netflix, (or whoever first brought it to the English-speaking world), called it in order to grab viewers attention? Is one of the key players in the production a Christian? None of the leading characters' names seems to be linked to the original story so at what point did this become a "Cain and Abel" story?

    Indeed thus far the story fits the set-up of the Jacob and Esau story at least as much that of Cain and Abel. Even the start of the show - which starts ahead of the rest of the main story with Lee Cho-in staggering through the desert injured - could be as much About Isaac's sons as Adam's. It also seems like naming the series after a story which famously climaxes in the murder of one of the two protagonists potentially reduces the tension. But then, if the story is not widely known in Korea then perhaps that was less of an issue.

    Sadly this disappeared before I could watch any more of it, so it's possible that it's still 18 episodes away from the story reaching any kind of biblical parallel, but the IMDb summary does suggest that things do continue along biblical lines as the series progresses:
    Based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve's first two sons, Cain and Abel is about Cain's jealousy towards his brother Abel. Lee Cho In is a very gifted doctor who has everything that he wants whereas his older brother, Seon Woo, is jealous of all the attention that Cho In receives. Seon Woo blames his brother for taking everything good in his life away from him. Seon Woo blames Cho In for getting their father's love, getting more recognition as a doctor, and for stealing the woman he loves.

    Labels: , ,

    Saturday, February 09, 2019

    Italian Jesus Films - a List


    (Traduzione Italiana sotto)
    I'm doing a bit of research into Italian films about Jesus at the moment, so found myself compiling a list. The below is restricted to films which feature Jesus (as an adult or a baby), are at least partially set in the time of the gospels, and at least part of the funding is Italian. I'm grateful to Hervé Dumont's "L'antiquité au cinéma" for many of the titles I did now know about before, as well as the folks at the Peplum Paradise Facebook page for adding a few as well.

    I've inevitably missed a few out, so please do let me know in the comments. In particular I've struggled to find anything more recent than 2012, which seems highly unlikely to be accurate, but bizarrely it's harder to keep track of these than older titles. Square brackets are either a translation or an English Language release title, directors names in standard brackets.

    Io sono fa i ricerce di Gesu nel cinema italiano et questo e un list comprehensivo. Questi filme feature Gesu (come un adulto o bambino) e accadano nel tempo dei gospels e sono stati fatti con alcuni soldi italiano. Grazie per Hervé Dumont's "L'antiquité au cinéma" per molti titli che non ho saputo e i gente di Peplum Paradise Facebook page.

    Credo che dimentico alcuni titli. Se trova alcuni, dimme nei commenti, per favore, recente i filmi da 2012 in particulario. (E piu difficile trovare questi titili).


    -Passione di Gesù (Luigi Topi and Ezio Cristofari, 1900)
    -Vita, passione, morte et resurrezione di Gesù Cristo (1908)
    -Redenta [Redeemed, Episode of Sacra Bibbia](1909)
    -La Samaritaine (Henri Desfontaines, 1910)
    -Giuda [Judas](Luigi Maggi, 1911)
    -Erodidae (Oreste Mentasti, 1912)
    -Satan/Il dramma dell’umanità (Luigi Maggi, 1912)
    -Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913)

    -Christus (Comte Giulio Antomoro,Ignazio Lupi,Enrico Guazzoni, 1916)*
    -Maria di Magdala (Aldo MolinarI, 1918)
    -Redenzione (Carmine Gallone & Godofredo Mateldi, 1919)
    -Giuda [aka L'ultima cena] (Mari Febo, 1919)
    -Mater Dei [Mother of God](Don Emilio Cordero, 1950)
    -Il Figlio dell'uomo [Shadow on the Hill](Virgilio Sabel, 1954)
    -La spada e la croce [Mary Magdalene](Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, Antonio Petrucci, 1958)
    -Erode il grande [Herod the Great](Viktor Tourjansky as Arnaldo Genoino, 1959)
    -Barabbas (Richard Fleischer, 1961)
    -Mistero della Natività, Passione e Resurrezione di Nostro Signore (Gian Roberto Cavalli, Ghilka, Muzzi Matteuzzi, 1961)
    -La Ricotta/RoGoPaG (Pier Paolo Pasolini et al., 1962)
    -Ponzio Pilato (G.P. Callegari,Irving Rapper, 1962)
    -Processo a Gesù (Sandro Bolchi,1963)
    -Il vangelo secondo Matteo [Gospel According to Matthew](Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)
    -Il Mistero della Natività (Orazio Costa Giovangigli, 1966)
    -Processo a Gesù (Gianfranco Bettetini, 1968)
    -Il Messia (Roberto Rossellini, 1975)
    -Povero Cristo (Pier Carpi, 1975)
    -Jesus of Nazareth (Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)
    -Il ladrone [The Thief](Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1979)
    -Cammina, Cammina [Keep Walking](Ermanno Olmi, 1982)
    -Quo Vadis? (Franco Rossi, 1984)
    -A.D. (Stuart Cooper, 1985)
    -Secondo Ponzio Pilato (Luigi Magni, 1987) 
    -A Child Called Jesus (Franco Rossi, 1988)
    -Il bacio di Giuda (Paolo Benvenuti, 1989)
    -Un amore a Betlemme / Per amore, solo per amore (Giovanni Veronesi, 1993)
    -Il ventre di Maria (Memè Perlini, 1993)
    -I Giardini dell’Eden /The Garden of Eden (Alessandro D’Alatri, 1998)
    -Jesus (Roger Young, 1999)
    -Joseph of Nazareth (Raffaele Mertes, 2000)
    -Mary Magdalene (Roger Young, 2001)
    -Thomas (Roger Young, 2001)
    -Judas (Raffaele Mertes , 2001)
    -Maria, figlia del suo figlio [Mary: Daughter of Her Son] (Fabrizio Costa, 2000)
    -Gesù – Un regno senza confine (Jung Soo Yong, 2003)
    -San Pietro / St. Peter (Giulio Base, 2005)
    -La sacra famiglia [Holy Family](Raffaele Mertes, 2006)
    -Jesus. A Kingdom Without Frontiers (Orlando Corradi, 2006)
    -La stella dei re [Star of Kings](Fabio Jephcott, 2007)
    -7 km da Gerusalemme (Claudio Malaponti, 2007)
    -Io sono con te [Let it Be](Guido Chiesa, 2010)
    -Su Re [The King](Giovanni Columbu,2012)
    -Maria di Nazaret (Giacomo Campiotti, 2012)

    -7 Miracles (Rodrigo Cerqueira, Marco Spagnoli, 2018)

    *Not to be confused with Giuseppe De Liguoro's 1914 film Christus or La sfinga dello Ionio which is not a Jesus film. I investigate the distinction between the two here.

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, February 03, 2019

    The Christ Slayer (2019)


    The Christ Slayer (dir:Nathaniel Nose, 2019) is the third and final instalment of The Quest Trilogy a series of films, written, produced and often starring actor DJ Perry. As with the other films in the trilogy it's a well-filmed, thoughtfully-crafted film that's not afraid to explore key moments in the gospels from a quirky angle. 40 Nights (2016) examined Jesus' time in the desert and features a more nuanced exploration of Jesus' temptations there than is typical. The following year Chasing the Star (2017) went back to the time of Jesus' birth and found the magi similarly in similarly introspective mood. As with 40 Nights the time journeying in the desert leads to discussions with the devil and reflections on their past, and therefore future lives.

    It's to be expected, then that The Christ Slayer treads a similar path. The action, such as it is, has shot forward to Jesus' crucifixion. At the foot of the cross we find Longinus (Carl Weyant), a blind Roman centurion who is tasked with piercing Jesus' side. One of the things I have enjoyed about the trilogy is that Perry is not afraid to tweak the details in the gospels just a little in order to get closer to the heart of the issues he is exploring. Earlier this week Alex von Tunzelmann wrote a piece for The Guardian arguing that if films can encourage audiences to think more critically about the source material, then that is arguably more important than unswerving historical accuracy. Quest's deep dives do just that. I don't think Perry would claim his versions of what happened to Jesus, or to the Magi in the desert were what actually happened, but they raise bigger issues about faith and humanity. And so it is with The Christ Slayer. Here Longinus believes himself to be the man who killed the Christ and for a while it looks like the guilt will drive him insane. Much of the early part of the film feels like horror, with Longinus's various nightmares taking centre stage for a while.

    But if that sounds like a 21st century reworking of The Robe (1953) the the film soon plots a different course. Longinus decides to return home to end his life. He sets off accompanied by his servant and friend Albus (Josh "Ponceman" Perry). Along the way the two encounter Jesus and gradually Longinus re-evaluates his plans for what remains of his life.

    Josh Perry's casting is particularly notable given he has Down Syndrome. The role feels like it could have gone to any actor; there's nothing about it that indicates that the character has the syndrome or anything like it. At the same time though, because the story setting in a world before such a label had been created, it's perfectly plausible that someone with a similar condition could have been a servant for a man who was himself vision-impaired. I love that the film makes nothing of it. It neither feels like it's trying to make a point and yet it does. Perry does good work here with no special pleading and its to his credit and that of the other filmmakers for making it happen.

    As with the other entries in the series the film perambulates along its journey. The destination is not really the destination, and rather than summoning up false peril to create a sense of urgency, the film is content to let the protagonists inner journey to take the wheel. Nose, like Jessie Low and Brett Miller before him provide some nice images of the landscape for such inner exploration to take place. For a series made with three different directors the three films still feel like they belong together.

    It will be no great spoiler to reveal that Longinus eventually makes his piece with Jesus. Not only is it the typical place such films end up, but he is also now venerated in many church traditions as a saint. What is interesting is that just as 40 Nights was content with the idea that Jesus was not fully knowledgeable before his ministry, he also still had some things to learn after it. Some will find this point objectionable, offensive even, but I find it fascinating. After all, even having lived for thirty years amongst humanity, would anything prepare you for the trauma of crucifixion? The forty days of Jesus' ministry after his resurrected is often seen as about those he was to leave behind, but the stories from this period consist mainly of the things that happened in that first week. Why did Jesus stay around so long? Perhaps this is just my interpretation, but perhaps it suggests that Jesus's experience of humanity still had some way to go. To understand healing and forgiveness from a new, and difficult angle.

    There's much to admire here, then. From one some unconventional takes to one of the late Rance Howard's final roles (again kudos to the producers for not overly exploiting that in their publicity). The film is not without its weaknesses - I'm not entirely convinced by some of the acting and the odd line doesn't quite land - but overall, its a fitting end to the trilogy. This is particularly true considering the series has had such a limited budget, and it's certainly a film that from which a lot of those making films for Christian audiences could learn a great deal.

    Labels: ,

    Friday, February 01, 2019

    L'uomo dalla croce (1943)


    Back in 2014 I wrote a chapter for the book "The Bible in Motion" on the films of Roberto Rossellini. One of the biggest challenges in writing the chapter was tracking down enough of his films to be able to discuss. Since then the BFI and Criterion have released a number of his works, but there was one title in particular that I was disappointed not to be able to see as it sounded like it might be of some relevance: L'uomo dalla croce (The Man of the Cross, 1943).

    The film was only Rossellini's third feature and came during what is often called his fascist period. For most of its existence Italian fascism was somewhat different from what was happening with the Nazis in Germany, such that communists, anti-fascists and fascists could mix without too much fear of reprisal.

    Rossellini, himself never hugely political, was good friends with Vittorio Mussolini, son of Il Duce, indeed it was he who got him his big break into filmmaking. In later years, Rossellini was understandably keen to distance himself from his involvement with the fascists and there's precious little evidence to suggest he was took on their beliefs, even if he was closer to the dictator's son than either he, or many of his admirers care to discuss.

    His films from this period, however, contain a surprising degree of ambiguity around their connection with fascism. Tag Gallagher, in his fine biography of Rossellini highlights the many ways that the three films he made at that time subvert expectations. Indeed he makes the point that it is hard to imagine an American film from that period including such criticisms of the military. Not everyone agrees, Peter Bondanella argues that some Rossellini scholars are a little too keen to read into these films subversive messages. I assume he's thinking of Gallagher, but have not read enough about the subject to know for certain.

    Rossellini's two previous films La nave bianca (The White Boat, 1941) and La pilota ritorna (The Pilot Returns, 1942) had dealt with the navy and the air force respectively, so naturally the final instalment deals with the army. The story revolves around the Italian insurgence into Russian territory, but the film's was delayed for so long that by the time it was released the Italian army was very much on the back foot in chaotic conditions. The "man" of the title is Father Reginaldo Giuliani, an army chaplain, who stays behind in no-mans-land between the two warring armies to look after an injured soldier. The majority of the film takes place in a crowded, ramshackle cottage where the Italians mix with Russian peasants, themselves equally trapped.

    As with the other two films in this trilogy, Rossellini includes elements that may well have not made it into and English or American movies from the same era. For example, it's difficult to think of a film by the allies where they show injured men being left behind at anything other than the victim's insistence, yet here it is the central element of the plot. Anyone seeking an unlikely double bill with Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge (2017) need look no further.

    The brief behind my previous piece on Rossellini was to cover how he treated the Bible, and it took a slightly broader course than simply re-hashing my writing on Atti degli apostoli (Acts of the Apostles, 1969) and Il Messia (The Messiah, 1975), covering how relevant parts of films, even such as his biopic Blaise Pascal (1972), touched on the Bible. This film certainly touches on issue of faith and the Bible as much as Pascal, if not slightly more.

    There are various moments that stand out in this respect. At one point, stuck in a bombed out cottage with a potent mixture of Italians and Russians, Giuliani refuses to treat the later any differently from how he would treat his compatriots. "I am a minister of God who is the Father of all men and even if they are hostile they are all brothers in his eyes" he argues at one point.

    More to the point, however, is that Giuliani sees his role as a comforter, not least because there's a suggestion that God's salvation is already present for those who pursue it. Moments after Sergei, one of the leading Russians, dies, Father Giuliani comforts his partner Irina, urging her not to give up hope so they will be reunited, with the words:
    "And God will tell you. And God will urge you. But if he was a man with goodness in his soul, then he is never truly gone. Before you give up you must shout, and you must plead with him. The Lord is always listening to you, up there in heaven. The Lord, who died on the cross for you, for your Sergei. Sergei, Sergei...God says to you: 'Bless those who cry for they must be consoled'"
    Of course part of this portrayal is also propaganda. Italy hosts the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, the faith of its army is a central point that contrasts strongly with the atheism that was the policy of the Russian state at the time. Indeed the opening credits of the film dedicate it to "the heroic chaplains fallen among the Godless in barbaric lands".

    But perhaps the film's most memorable "biblical" moment - and I don't want to just reduce the film to that, as it's certainly about far more - is the birth of Sergei and Irina's child. It's here that the film's humble setting comes into it's own: the rural context means that animals are in the background, and hay abounds in the misè-en-scene all give this the feel of a certain stable in Bethlehem and the composition of Irina holding her child further reinforce the point. Moments later Giuliani gives the child a Christian baptism, just one of many examples of him performing the function of a priest amongst his people. The child is baptised with the name of Nicola, with its connotations of St Nicholas, who as well as his connection to the birth of Jesus is also the patron saint of Russia.

    As much as the film nicely covers the essential bases of priesthood in the most unlikely of contexts - under fire in a remote part of atheist Russia, it never really gets beneath Giulliani's skin in the way later films do. To quote Tag Gallagher, by this early stage in his career "Rossellini is not yet a moviemaker with real people. His priest is an outline, his other characters bare figures in the chorus." (Gallagher, 105). In some ways it is that old problem of portraying goodness being far harder than portraying evil. Giulliani is more or less faultless even as he dies he crawls across the floor to whisper the words of the Lord's Prayer into his assassin's ear. He is far from the tormented ministers of Bergman's faith trilogy, or from a variety of movie priests who have struggled with their consciences.

    Even with that said there is more to the portrayal of goodness than that. Three years later Rossellini's Roma, città aperta would revisit the heroic priest character, who similarly lacked the flaws of other movie ministers. Yet there, in the character of Don Pietro Pellegrini, Rossellini fashions a character of real depth as well as real goodness. In many ways Giulliani is his forerunner; the connection between the two is plain to see.

    Having said all that, the film is not without its masterful moments. In particular, Rossellini shows his skill at recreating what looks like documentary footage. The battle scenes are particularly effective in this respect. There's something about them that I can't quite put my finger on that makes them seem so much more real than other war-action scenes, yet they are all dramatic reconstructions. Particularly striking in this respect is the shots of the Italian infantry moving in with their fire hoses ablaze. Even if Rossellini was not the finished article by this stage, his mastery of these scenes is already apparent and it was not long before his command of dialogue and social interaction would catch up.

    =========
    Gallagher, Tag (1998) The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films New York: Da Capo Press.

    Labels: ,