• 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.

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

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