• 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


    Saturday, March 30, 2019

    Silent Bible Film Mystery - #05 Christus (1914/1916)

    Back in 2007 and 2008 I wrote a couple of posts about the Italian Jesus film Christus. At the time there was a bit of a problem with what the date of the film was (was it 1914 or 1916?). As part of my research on Italian Jesus films I've been looking back at this film again, and it turns out that there were two different films called Christus one released in 1914, the other in 1916 or maybe even 1917.

    I guess it's time for another instalment of Silent Bible Film Mysteries.

    Firstly there is some confusion as to who directed which film. The cover of the DVD I have, cites Giuseppe De Liguoro as the director, but the film itself does not name the drector. Other sources cite Giulio Antamoro, with others mentioning Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1913). The film is on YouTube several times but usually attributed to Antamoro.

    It turns out that this mystery isn't quite as mysterious as some of the others in this series. Discussion about a film called Christus is mentioned in a number of sources (Bertellini's "Italian Silent Cinema", Shepherd's "Silents of Jesus", Campbell & Pitts' "The Bible on Film", Kinnard & Davis' "Divine Images" and Adele Reinhartz's "Jesus of Hollywood", all of whom identify Antamoro as the director.

    Pucci (in Shepherd) names De Liguoro as the director of a different film called Christus (200) and even notes the confusion caused by this Grapevine release, which is different from the one I bought from them over a decade ago (207). Both he and Bertellini (134n38) give the alternative title of De Liguoro's film. La sfinga della Ionio (The Sphinx of the Ionian Sea).

    A little googling brought up a bit more information about the De Liguoro film (pictured above). Whilst Rome was fast becoming the film-production capital of Italy, the industry was growing in other regions as well. De Liguoro’s 1914 Christus had been filmed and financed in Sicily. Filmmaking did not start on the Catania side of the Island until 1914 so Liguoro’s film, based on a local legend about a sphinx-shaped outcrop of rocks, was amongst the first shot in the region. It was made under the banner of Etna films, funded by local industrialist Alfredo Alonzo, which targeted their output at the local, upper class market whilst seeking to engage a broader audience (Bertellini, 130).

    The Christus of the title, however, is not Jesus Christ, as you might expect, but the name of a character from an entirely different story set around 1000 B.C. In 2014 an Italian paper ran a series looking back at their community a hundred years previously. You can read the original article in Italian, (or have a look at this translation to English), which includes the following summary:
    "Christus tells the story of the impossible love of the lustful, corrupt, governor of Syracuse Xenia, for the young Christus, in love with the sweet Myriam, with punctual and atrocious death in the flames of a galley (built ad hoc) of the cruel Xenia, while Christus, together with old Gisio, manages to save Miriam locked up in a well. Meanwhile the protagonist, together with old Gisio, succeeds in saving Miriam who had been locked up in a well"
    The article also makes it clear that Alonzo, inspired by Cabiria (1914) earlier in the year pumped a vast amount of money into Etna films, and that this epic was their most costly and spectacular production. In addition to a reputed cost of 300 extras and several major stars there was also the creation of vast sets and a ship for the scenes at sea. Sadly though it seems the film's marketing efforts failed to get any traction, with even the local media underplaying it, and it never broke out to become the European/Worldwide smash that Alonzo/Etna needed to recoup costs.

    The confusion in this case however seems to be limited to Grapevine video and customers like me. Aside from their case and the surrounding confusion there is nothing else linking De Liguoro with a Jesus film called Christus. Whilst Grapevine no longer seem to sell the DVD set I bought they continue to market a film they claim is De Liguoro's Christus, but according to Pucci's endnote the film supplied is Maître's 1914 Life and Passion of Jesus Christ the subject of  Silent Bible Film Mystery #04 (207n1).

    In summary, then, we have two films. The 1914 Christus, also known as La sfinga della Ionio (The Sphinx of the Ionian Sea),was made in Sicily by Etna films with Giuseppe De Liguoro at the helm. Rather than being a Jesus film however, it's a story from 100 years previously, whose hero (played by Alessandro Rocca) is simply called Christus, though it's biggest star was Alfonso Cassini in the role of Gisio.

    Then there is the Jesus film called Christus released two or three years later in 1916/1917 was directed by Giulio Antamoro for the great Cines firm. This is the film I wrote about and which has been covered by the other authors listed above. a version of this film, (labelled correctly) is also available from Grapevine, though the print of the film on YouTube is better if you can hack the fairly occasional subtitles being in Italian. Jesus is played by Alberto Pasquali, and it's worth looking at CineKolossal's page on this film, for the sheer number of screenshots and stills (though they date it 1914 which is seemingly date production began). And it turns out that whilst Antamoro filmed most of the picture, Guazzoni did direct a few shots including part of the ascension scene (Pucci 201).

    Bertellini, Giorgio (2013) “Southern (and Southernist) Italian Cinema” in Bertellini, Giorgio (ed.) (2013). Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader (New Barnett: John Libbey Publishing), pp. 123-134

    Pucci, Giuseppe (2016) "Christus (Cines, 1916): Italy's First Religious 'Kolossal'  by Antamoro and Salvatori" in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927); ed. Shepherd, David. pp.200-210

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    Monday, March 25, 2019

    Pontius Pilate (1962)

    Ponzio Pilato (Pontius Pilate, dir: Irving Rapper and Gian Paolo Callegari, 1962) is best known as the film in which John Drew Barrymore plays the roles of both Judas and Nazareth, though he is uncredited for the latter. In truth his Jesus is largely shot from the rear (or the side as above) save for two extreme close-ups of his eyes in a manner reminiscent of similar shots in the previous year's King of Kings (Nicholas Ray). There are other similarities with Ray's film, the strawberry-blond hair the vibrancy of the red-robe Jesus wears before Pilate and the lengthy sub-plot involving Barabbas and his zealot troops.

    Like La spada e la croce (The Sword and the Cross, 1958), the film sits somewhere between the Hollywood Jesus cameo epics of the 1950s and a typical American Jesus film. Jesus features a great deal more than he does in The Robe (1953) or Ben-Hur (1959) but the story is still mainly about those associated with his life than he himself. This focus on these minor gospel characters seems to be something Italian producers are far more interested in than their American counterparts.

    At the start of the film it is Pilate who is on trial in front of the Senate, rather than Jesus before the Governor. Pilate (Jean Marais) has been recalled to Rome only to find the emperor who brought him to prominence, Tiberius, has been replaced by Gaius. The charge sheet is fairly lengthy, his disregarding Jewish traditions, his use of the Jewish temple tax to build an aqueduct and a charge that he "massacro un moltitudine di inermi che fuggivano sua ingiustizia" (massacred a defenceless multitude fleeing his injustice). This is all reasonably consistent with the accounts about Pilate we find about Pilate in the works of Josephus and Philo, indeed his acuser's summary that "è comporato come un tiranno dimostrando il suo odio al populo Giudeo" (he has shown tyranny and his hatred for the people of Judea by his governance), is remarkably close to Philo's description of a "merciless" man capable of great "wickedness".

    The historical rooted opening device is not only unusual, but also rather significant in terms of how it frames the rest of Callegari's script. Too often Jesus films have perpetuated anti-Semitism by portraying a weak Pilate being pushed into condemning Jesus by the Jewish people and/or their leaders. The Pilate who we find in these roughly contemporary historical accounts, and indeed elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 13:1) was a vicious, unpredictable, tyrant, not a thoughtful and impartial philosopher-in-waiting. Framing the story in this way - putting these accusations up front, rather than sneaking them in under the radar, or just ignoring them, has a significant effect on how we view Pilate throughout the film.

    Sadly that historical credibility is rather undermined by the filmmakers next move however as Gaius whips out the sign that Pilate had nailed to Jesus' cross all those years ago and repeats the argument assigned to Caiaphas in John 19 that calling Jesus King of the Jesus amounted to treason, for the king of the Jews was Caesar. (We'll leave aside the unlikeliness of a sign nailed to a cross in a backwater in Galilee finding it's way, 10 years later, to the highest authority in the land). In answer to this, Pilate further heightens the parallels between his trial and Jesus' by remaining silent rather than answering his accusers.

    There then follows a flashback to the incidents leading up to Jesus' execution which comprises the rest of the film, beginning with his arrival in Jerusalem. There's an attack by the zealots leading to the new prefect getting shot in hand with an arrow, a foreshadowing of the blood on his hands for Jesus' execution. Pilate quickly gets up to speed with the varied politics of the locals, from the sympathetic Nicodemus, who we wait to bloom into the character Jesus encounters, but who never quite gets there; to Basil Rathbone's relatively sympathetic and flexible Caiaphas; Gianni Garko's amiable rebel Gionata; through to the zealot hardliner Barabbas. There's also a rich and influential money man Aronne Ec Mezir and his beautiful daughter Sarah (Leticia Roman) whom Pilate falls for and has an affair with early in the picture.

    The main elements of the plot though, do rotate around what the ancient sources, including the Bible, have to say. The construction of the aqueduct found in Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.2) and the troubles Pilate has with it takes up a lot of screen time early on and is always on hand for whenever the filmmakers need a dramatic al fresco Roman-looking backdrop. Not that the film is short of these, the impressive landscapes and the impressive looking sets give this film an epic feel. Another element from history that drives the plot on is the Jewish protestations at the Roman standards which Pilate erected in the temple precinct (Josephus Antiquities 18.3.1). Whilst this incident occurs in a number of Jesus films the version here seems to have influenced Roger Young's Jesus (1999). Faced with a high profile star to play Pilate (Gary Oldman) and the desire to put the blame for Jesus' death closer to Rome's door than Jerusalem's the incident is a great opportunity to put a bluster-filled Pilate in context. Various shots of this incident in Rapper's film also seem to have closish reproductions in Young's.

    What is surprising though, given the opening to the film, is the way that Callegari's script uses these incidents to portray Pilate in a positive light. His desire for the hated aqueduct is to enable better irrigation for the region's poverty-stricken farmers. The eagle standards are only erected because Barabbas is beginning to run riot over Judea. A decisive moment occurs just before the film's halfway point. Pilate's wife Claudia returns to her adulterous husband having heard Jesus' teaching on forgiveness and turning the other cheek and she begins to influence him for the better.

    This moment is contrasted with the following scene where the Jewish Sanhedrin vote to oppose Pilate with violence. They are not aware of the words Jesus has been speaking moments before, but they, too, recite the "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" passage from Exodus 21:24. Unlike Jesus they accept it rather than refute it. Caiaphas, whose usually towering head wear is a little more practical here, seems to secretly disapprove of this course, and it's unclear what we are to make of the Jewish council voting to fight back in this way.

    At the very least it represents a parting of the way with Jesus' message of peace. Parts of Jesus' teaching are scattered throughout the film. There's an odd moment early on when Gionata's friend Daniel recalls his personal and life-changing encounter with Jesus on, of all places, the Road to Emmaus. Jesus has healed him, and his predicts salvation at the cost of persecution. Claudia hears him speaking on the shores of Lake Tiberias. Later we hear one of his disciples sharing the beatitudes and recounting the story of Lazarus shortly before Barabbas kills him, quoting "turn the other cheek", and sacks the village where he was speaking.

    But whereas the biblical material in the first hour of the film is largely incidental, in the final 30 minutes it forms the primary narrative. Aronne Ec Mezir increases the reward for capturing Barabbas and he finally gets arrested. With him seemingly out of the way, it is the teacher from Nazareth, fresh into Jerusalem and causing chaos in the temple, who becomes the authorities' biggest problem.

    The difficulty is, however, that compared to Barabbas' antics, Jesus' minor disturbance seems very mild in comparison. When one of the Jewish leaders says "il sinhedrio non perdonerà il tuo Nazareno di aver scacciato i mercanti dal tempio" (The Sanhedrin will never forgive your Nazarene for driving the merchants out of the temple) it comes out of nowhere. The next shot sees Aronne Ec Mezir approach Judas and manipulate him to handing-over Jesus. Judas then appears after the Last Supper but doesn't convincingly betray Jesus. Jesus appears before Caiaphas but the high priest has neither the motive nor the passion to hand him over to Pilate. Pilate offers him to the crowd as an almost sarcastic riposte. Barabbas has been terrorising his own people as well as the Romans. He even sees Jesus' eyes reflecting off the water he uses to wash his hands of the affair, and yet still condemns him.

    The crucifixion is interesting for two reasons. Firstly because like Barabbas (1961) it features footage from an actual eclipse, although the shot of the moon/sun is rather unconvincingly spliced in between the footage of crosses on the hill in the dark. This is a tactic the film uses elsewhere - a scene of crocodiles eating the unfortunate losers in a boat-based fight-to-the-death similarly seemed to use stock footage. But the moment of Jesus' death is also interesting because of the scale of destruction due to the earthquake accompanying it. As I have argued before scenes of spectacular destruction are one of the defining characteristics of the biblical epic. However, this is generally for the Hebrew Bible epics and the Roman/Christian epics, the tendency is far less prominent in those films based on the gospels and I can't think of another that has quite the scale of material destruction at this point in the story. As with many epics is implies divine judgement so it's curious to find it occurring at the moment when God's mercy was meant to be being unleashed, rather than his judgement.

    The question though remains: who is the object of this judgement? The film struggles to suggest anyone person or group bore the responsibility for Jesus' death. Given the unfortunate history of Jesus films continuing the tradition of blaming the Jews for Jesus' death it's perhaps not the worst thing in the world for a film to struggle to find anyone to blame.The nature of the film requires a sympathetic Pilate. History, perhaps, requires a sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish population as a whole (and a sympathetic portrayal of Judas in particular). Rapper (who was Jewish) and Callegari really deliver on this - the diverse range of different, generally sympathetic, Jewish characters with their different beliefs and ways of putting those beliefs into action is certainly very worthy even if it doesn't deliver in other areas.

    Ultimately the action returns to the senate, with Pilate standing before the assembly saying he will be judged by "la giustizia del regno dei cielli" (the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven). Like history and, indeed, theology, Pilate's fate is left open ended.

    Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.2
    Philo, On The Embassy of Gauis Book XXXVIII 299–305


    Friday, March 22, 2019

    Jaël et Sisera (1911)

    Amazingly this short film from 1911 is the only time any part of the story of Deborah (Judges 4-5) has been filmed in any kind of vaguely significant production. For this reason (and a few others) it's been one I've wanted to see for very many years and last week I happened to be at BFI Southbank -  where you can now access the BFI's digital library - and was able to walk in and watch it for free within a minute or two of arriving. If you're passing that way I very much recommend it. A few other old silent films are there to view as well. (For example, three films about Jephthah's daughter from a similar time period are there also).

    Unfortunately, Deborah doesn't get to feature in this film either. Whilst Barak, Sisera, Jael and her husband Heber all get a part, Deborah not only remains off screen, but doesn't even get a mention in the intertitles. In some ways that's not entirely surprising, at only 10 minutes long the film has to trim the story right down and given the success of the biblical-women-slaying-Israelite-enemies-whilst-they-sleep genre (OK,mainly Judith) it's not that hard to see why Pathé and director Henri Andréani prioritised Jael.

    The film starts outside Jael's tent. Things are a little unclear, but Sisera has seemingly conquered the camp because a group of Israelites are chained up, Jael is somewhat subdued and a minute or two into the picture Heber, previously described by an intertitle as being "friendly with Sisera", is brought in seemingly under a certain amount of duress. When nobody is looking Jael gesticulates towards the skies, and then breaks the chains of some of the Isarelites. They then flee to tell Barak about Sisera's location and his army marches our to battle. This opening shot, and indeed most, if not all of the film, is all filmed on location outdoors (as with Andréani's 1911 Caïn et Abel and a number of his other films).

    On hearing the news of Sisera's location, Barak and his troops attack Sisera's camp in various locations, including the scene of the opening shot and one particularly pleasing shot as the Israelites chase Sisera's men up and over a hill. Another scene takes place on what looks like a beach though the intertitles describe God sending a "Kishon Torrent" to help Barak in an interesting dovetailing of Judges 4 verses 13 and 15. The torrent looks more like a lake or a sea, but the location does provide Andréani with a sizeable rock for Sisera's man to scramble upon in a fashion similar to Francis Danby's Painting "The Deluge" (c.1840), which also found its way into Darren Aronfsky's Noah (2014).

    Sisera survives however, and creeps away somewhat stealthily, but Barak nevertheless manages to hunt him down. So it is that Sisera arrives back at Jael's tent and begs her to shelter him. In an echo of the first scene Jael gives Sisera water and he then collapses in exhaustion.Whilst he lies there unconscious she pulls up a large tent peg and drives it through his head (pictured above). The moment is surprisingly brutal. Whilst there's no blood and the action takes place in mid-shot, the repeated violent hammering is rather shocking.

    Moments later Barak's army arrives, only to find Jael has done their work for him. Barak kneels besides Sisera's lifeless body and kisses the hem of her garment in tribute.

    The quality of the print of the film is pretty impressive. I don't know enough about restoration and transfer to be able to tell whether this has been simply transferred to mp4 format or whether some restoration work has been done, but I should point out that the image above was taken rather hastily on my phone from the computer screen and so doesn't at all do it justice. The colour is quite striking, and consistent with Andréani's David et Goliath from the previous year. Particularly memorable is the shot panning up the hill as Sisera's troops seek to escape. As early biblical films goes it's an interesting mix of reliance on the text combined with the odd bit of dramatic licence when it suited the filmmakers, but perhaps most interesting is the use of somewhat shocking violence. Biblical films are well known for sword play, but rarely until the present century have they been quite so violent. Still, if ever a source text justifies such an approach, it's this.

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    Saturday, March 16, 2019

    Fortini/Cani (1976)

    Image result for cani del sinai
    As part of exploring the context of Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring Huillet and Straub's other films including this one.
    Fortini/Cani (1976) marks the beginning  of a new phase for Straub and Huillet as it was their first Italian film. Italy had been the subject and location of some of their previous efforts, most notably Othon (1969) and History Lessons (1972), and even some of the funding for Moses und Aron (1974) had come from RAI, but the works themselves had been predominantly German-funded and usually in the German language.

    As a result it becomes the point at which much English language scholarship around Huillet and Straub dries up a little. Roud's book - for over two decades the only English language book on the duo - stops even before the completion of Moses und Aron, the next book in English, Barton Byg's "Landscapes of Resistance" covered only their German period. Whilst I understand Ursula Boser's 2004 "The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening" is apparently a little more wide-ranging, I've never managed to get hold of it. Ute Holl's "Moses Complex obviously largely focused on Moses und Aron. Recent works such as "Writings" by Sally Shafto, and "Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet" by Ted Fendt have done something to redress the balance but certainly it feels something like dropping off a cliff edge. For me being able to read about Straub/Huillet's work is such a crucial part of watching with it and engaging in it because you tend to need to know so much in advance.

    The title, as is often the case, is somewhat unusual. The "Fortini" is the Italian writer Franco Fortini; the "Cani" from the title of his book "I Cani del Sinai" (The Dogs of Sinai), although, as the film concedes early on in proceedings "There are no dogs on Sinai". Having worked on a number of historic texts during the 1970s, the filmmakers were keen to return to the approach of some of their earliest work and adapt text by a living author and Fortini was keen to see his work given similar treatment as that of Heinrich Böll, whose work was the subject of Machorka Muff (1962) and Not Reconciled (1965).

    This time, however, the major difference is the appearance of Fortini himself. Fortini appears reading various passages from the work itself. It is left to the audience to decide if this is Fortini appearing as himself, or playing a version himself, or indeed another man of similar age. The lack of clarity on this issue raises a further question of genre: is the film a documentary or something else?

    The "something else" in that question summaries the difficulty of pigeon-holing exactly what the film is. Aside from the the scenes of "Fortini" reading two other types of footage dominate. The first consists of Fortini continuing to read excerpts from the book, but as a voiceover, over various scenes of Italian land and city-scapes. In one particularly striking one, the camera holds static down what appears to be a reasonably typical Italian street. Cars drive up and down, people walk along pavements seemingly going about their everyday business. And then I see it, and struggle to believe that I have not noticed it before; Florence's Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore poking out in the background.

    In attempting to reflect how I missed such an obvious landmark I can only reflect that this is because of how the film up to this point has trained me to watch it, not only in the scenes of Fortini, but also in the third type of footage - the long, slow, almost silent, 360° pans around various  landscapes. Watching these in a cinema is quite unlike watching such images at home on a DVD player. For one thing the there are no distractions. No escapes when otherwise temptation to look away to be distracted might prove irresistible. For another there is the sound, the quietness of crickets in the background, and an audience all holding their breaths. I'm reminded of Kolker's quote about "viewing a film by Straub and Huillet... is essentially an act of watching oneself watch a film" (208). The process is a little like mindfulness, eventually you yield and the rich images, textures sounds are transformative and indeed transportative; they take you to another place. Another quote about Huillet/Straub which I can't seem to shake off is Daniel Fairfax's line about the "sensual role of the material environment in their work". It's the slowness of the panning camera gradually peeling back a little at a time. Because of this you find yourself focusing on the textures of a stone wall, or the expression on a passerby, and somehow missing a cathedral spire poking out magnificently from behind the buildings.

    The beauty of the locale is something of a double edged sword, however. Much of the pans across the countryside are taken in the Apuan alps, the scene of the 1944 Vinca massacre of 162 Italian citizens by Nazi soldiers, though Italian fascists were complicit. At times these are left for silent reflection, but at times they are accompanied by Fortini's commentary. The primary theme of Fortini's book is the Six Day War and Israel's seizing of the Sinai Peninsula which Fortini is appalled by. Fortini, who was no stranger to the issue of anti-Semitic abuse on account of his Jewish father,is particularly critical of the way large swathes of Italian society were supportive of Israel. Fortini argues "that the enthusiasm of the Italian intelligentsia of 1967 for the Israeli course was fuelled by the concealment of the Fascist...complicity in the extermination enterprise and by the burying of the victims on Italian soil" (Rancière 41). As in Moses und Aron and numerous other of their films Huillet and Straub are drawing attention to the ground where blood of earlier generations has been spilt even though it is no longer visible. The quiet beauty of the landscape speaks volumes about our attempts to cover our bloody past when it suits us.

    There is one particular shot that highlight. There are several shots of landmarks and signs in the film commemorating those who have been slaughtered in the one. This particular shot begins on one such obelisk, before commencing a slow 360° pan around the otherwise quiet location, only then to end on the same plaque. Rather than using historic documentary footage, Straub/Huillet use this subtler approach.
    "There are no tortured bodies matching the writers words, but the opposite - their absence, their invisibility. From the terrace where Fortini is rereading his text...the camera slips far away to explore the places where the massacres occurred. In those mute hills, crushed by the sun and deserted villages, only the words of commemorative plaques remember, and say, without showing it, the blood that once stained these oblivious lands." (Rancière  42)
    In addition to the argument from the Fascist past, Fortini also argues that Italian support for the war derived from anti-Arab sentiment. He argues this at length, and on a single viewing it is difficult to be able to competently summarise it (not least as the subtitles left certain sentences untranslated), but essentially resists the accusation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic by referencing his own suffering on account of it and by drawing a sharp line between Israel the state and the Jewish people as a whole. That his points here seem so contemporary given the once again apparent problems of anti-Semitism coming from the resurgent far left of British politics. Fortini feels a sense of isolation, marginalised for being a Jew by the wider society, whilst simultaneously marginalised by other Jews for not being sufficiently pro-Israeli,

    There are also allusions to the Hebrew Bible, not least a passage where Fortini talks about reading it in his youth and contrasting "lo scontro esaltante, liberatore, con la scrittura, i Salmi, Giobbe, Isaia, letti e riletti con terrore e rapimento" (the exciting, liberating battle with the Scriptures, the Psalms, Job, Isaiah, read and reread with terror and rapture) with his perceptions of his own faith. There's a lengthy static shot from the balcony in a synagogue whilst various Jewish rituals are undertaken.

    As noted above whilst the footage mainly falls into three categories (Fortini reading, silent nature and Fortini reading over images of nature) other such images do appear. For one thing there is the film's opening image (above) of the book itself, followed shortly afterwards from a close up on its dedication. There are also various cuttings from newspapers from various nations including, of all things, one from the Daily Mail. These shots emphasise Huillet and Straub's rootdsness in texts. The film is an adaptation of "I cani del Sinai", but as with Machorka Muff they are happy to go beyond the one text by incorporating 'contemporary' newspaper headlines and articles which they want to hold up to criticism.

    However the film goes beyond the text in other ways. The screening notes from the showing I attended consisted of Fortini's 1978 "Note for Jean-Marie Straub" that accompanied the 2013 English translation of the book (which rumour has it includes a DVD of this film). In it it is clear that Fortini recognises that Huillet and Straub have brought out things from his work which he himself was not aware of until he watched the film. "Through the gaze of the camera looking at me, I was also able better to understand some formal lessons I had received, across many years" (Fortini). He goes on to explain how the instructions from Straub and Huillet worked by "unweaving the fabric of my thoughts, surpassed them and conserved them" (Fortini). The excerpt ends "From then onwards the words and ideas which, in "The Dogs" still pained me have ceased to hurt me (Fortini).
    - Fairfax, Daniel (2009) "Great Directors: Straub, Jean-Marie & Huillet, Danièle", Sense of Cinema, September. Available online
    - Fortini, Franco (2013) "A Note for Jean-Marie Straub" in Fortini, Franco The Dogs of the Sinai, translated by  Alberto Toscano. Seagull Books
    - Kolker, Robert Phillip (1983) The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    - Rancière, Jacques (2014) Figures of History. John Wiley & Sons

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    Sunday, March 10, 2019

    Joan the Woman (1916)

    I'm introducing a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 film The King of Kings next month, so I thought now would be a good time to finally watch DeMille's take on Joan of Arc - whilst not a biblical narrative, certainly a story that, in popular culture terms at least, is a very close neighbour.

    The film stars Geraldine Farrar, an opera star who Jesse Lasky poached for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company by offering her an exorbitant salary (Higham 49). Farrar is hardly the young teenager that Joan was, but she is otherwise good in the role, not least because her own star power gives an extra element to Joan's meteoric rise.

    It's a while before Farrar gets to appear on screen however because the main part of the film is bracketed by some scenes from the trenches of WW1 - then a current conflict. This seems certainly like a response to Griffith's Intolerance, also Fritizi Kramer of Movies Silently (read her review of this film here) that amongst the reasons this was added was because screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson insisted on it in order to give the film "a more upbeat ending". I can imagine though that it would also reflect DeMille's concerns about the Great War and certainly this comes across as very much pro-France film with the French forces needing to repel the invading forces in their country. Of course as I'm looking for connections with The King of Kings then this link to a film that features Jesus cannot be ignored.

    It'd be interesting to know (and I will probably read up on this in DeMille's autobiography shortly) to hat extent Griffith's work influenced DeMille. Joan was his first historical epic. From today's perspective that is surprising for his name is now synonymous with the genre. On the other hand however DeMille seems to critique Griffith's film, most notably in the scenes towards the end of the film when a series of men wearing white robes and hoods. It's an interesting way to link the KKK and the Borriquita brotherhood in nearby Spain. Their role as leading persecutors of DeMille's heroine certainly reflects badly on them and seems to be a rebuke to Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915).

    Perhaps the film's most significant contribution is the use of colour, most notably the Handschiegl Color Process (aka "Wyckoff-DeMille Process") for certain scenes Most notably Joan burning at the stake. DeMille pioneered colour a few times, and it's curious that whereas he used it for Joan's death, he uses another pioneering colour technique for Jesus' resurrection in The King of Kings. (In the earliest cut of the film he also uses colour for the opening sequence of a vampy Mary Magdalene and her lovers). It's very effective here, partly due to its limited use. There are some good screen grabs of it here.

    Aside from the use of the Handschiegl Color Process, there is also the widespread use of tinting and toning throughout the film which DeMille uses to good effect. One memorable image is of the red tint that accompanies Joan's vision and calling. Here, as with many places in the film, DeMille uses double exposure to add an element of the supernatural here with the appearance of a cross. He uses this technique quite extensively through the film and to be honest overuses the double exposures, for a technique that had been in use since the turn of the century it seems a little odd that DeMille is so enamoured by it. Again though this reminds me of DeMille's use of double exposure - or more to the point multiple exposure in the scene where Jesus casts seven demons our of Mary Magdalene.

    Lastly I just wanted to touch on the way DeMille and MacPherson use quotes from the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death. Two in particular stand out, notably when Joan herself asks why God has foresaken her, and then later, when she is on her way to the stake (and there is a very Golgotha-y feel to the way a procession leads her to the stake) when one of those who gave false testimony against her, and was even involved in torturing her, asks for her forgiveness because they "knew not what they did".

    In many ways this actually recalls DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) more than The King of Kings (though it is perhaps the "middle term"). Through that film DeMille and screenwriter Aeneas MacKenzie draw out numerous parallels between Moses and Jesus often reversing the very ones the gospel writers put in to do the same. Here again we see this, not only in the use of these two lines to verbally create the parallels but also in variopus bits of imagery and composition.

    As a film I must admit it didn't really grab me. Whilst some of the imagery is rather fine, particularly on a bigger screen, a lot of it had too much going on. In particular the Battle of Oreans was long and a little dull. DeMille clearly hadn't quite perfected his eye for the small details against the largest of backdrops and the composition looks cramped. It's one of the longest scenes in the film and it feels like the time and money invested it could have gone elsewhere.

    That's all for now on this film - this is a scribbling down of a few thoughts, rather than a proper review as such, but hopefully it will be of interest to some.

    Higham, Charles "Cecil B. DeMille, an Uncensored Biography". (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973).

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    Friday, March 08, 2019

    April Release for Revival!

    If you follow me on Twitter, you may recall that a while ago to I posted a link to a story about  a very limited release for a new musical film about the life of Jesus. I've been meaning to write about it here ever since but have only now found the time.

    Revival! is the work of creator Harry Lennix, co-star of NBC’s The Blacklist. The musical blends together traditional spirituals such as "Down By the Riverside" and "Wade in the Water" with original gospel music such as the title piece "Revival". The mostly black cast includes some impressive singers including Chaka Khan, Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams and Grammy-nominated Mali Music in the role of Jesus.

    The film received a limited release to just ten theatres back in December, and whilst there is a piece on it by Variety, it was kinda hard to find its IMDb page. That may all be due to change. A trailer on the Tricoast website ends by announcing that it is "Coming to Theatres Good Friday April 19th" so it sounds like there might be a plan for a wider distribution.

    From the look of the trailer it looks like the film will be a mix of live on-stage footage and outdoor location shooting. According to the Religion News Services piece, it will combine those elements with "technological performances", though it's not entirely clear what is meant by that. Perhaps there will be some element of CGI. IMDb goes a step further describing it as a "hybrid of every film idiom: Broadway musical, Hollywood musical, animation, green screen technology, and sound stage". I'm guessing that the onstage footage will be taken from live performances of that stage show "Revival! The Experience".

    There is more information on the movie's official website including some more stills from the film, a change to sign up for more information and some merchandise. There is also a video featuring Harry Lennix (who also plays Pontius Pilate).

    The casting of Mali Music as Jesus will doubtless earn comparisons with the two films from 2006, Color of the Cross and Jezile (Son of Man) and I have been thinking of revisiting the former piece more recently. I'm interested in the fact that the latter (a recontextualisation of the story) attained so much media and then subsequently academic interest, whereas Color of the Cross which simply portrayed the characters as black - arguably a more daring approach - has largely been overlooked. It's interesting as well that Revival! not only largely casts black actors, but also features a female member of the historically male-only Sanhedrin, so it is crossing more than one boundary in terms of casting. I'm also reminded of the 2004 film Hero: The Rock Opera which featured a mixed cast but gave the role of Jesus to a black actor Michael Tait.

    I'll hopefully be able to review this nearer the time, but in the meantime, and particularly if you live in the US, it might be worth signing up to get more info.

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    Monday, March 04, 2019

    Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp, 1968)

    As part of exploring the context of Huillet and Straub's Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring their other films including this one.
    Like its title Straub/Huillet's 1968 short The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp, splits readily into three parts, but the three parts of each do not so much correlate to each other as to the three leading characters who emerge as the film progresses.

    In many ways the film references the very earliest period in film history. The opening shot - a 40 second focus on a piece of graffiti functions like an intertitle. The second shot, a four minute pan taken from a car as it drives along Landsberger Strasse in Munich's red light district recalls many of the actualité of the 1890s, most notably the Lumière's Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896). It also anticipates the longer shots from a car in Huillet and Straub's later work History Lessons (1972), not to mention Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976).

    Then there is the third shot, even longer at 11 minutes than the two that went before it. In most other respects however the shot is different. The outside, street location is swapped for inside a small theatre. The moving camera is exchanged for a static one. The real life "set" becomes a deliberately artificial one with a drawn on looking door. Again this recalls early silent film, but here it is more the static tableaux of the early films such as Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901) or the earlier versions of Pathé's Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902 onwards). As with those film, the camera holds this mid-shot without moving for the entire shot, the main noticeable difference with those tableaux silents is that, as ever, Straub and Huillet have placed the camera off centre.

    Furthermore whereas the earliest part of the previous shot started in silence before giving way to Bach's "Ascension Oratorio", here we lose the extra-diegetic music but gain audible dialogue. There's a brief moment of diegetic music when one of the characters slips a typical 1940s instrumental onto the record player and two of the characters begin to dance. It's a moment worth bearing in mind because it's easy to assume that that delivery of the play is without acting that is actually not quite correct. The speech that is delivered is more about rhythm than emotion, but it's not entirely deadpan and the characters movements whilst muted from what might be expected in conventional cinema, is still largely present. The characters stand, sit, smoke, twirl, come into and leave the room.

    It's this section footage that was shot first. Straub was approached by Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Munich Action-Theatre group  to direct a theatre production of Ferdinand Bruckner's "Pains of Youth" (1926), and only agreed on condition that he could strip it down to its essentials. The filmed, live, footage (and it is live, even the two moments of blackout between scenes retain that atmosphere thanks to Huillet and Straub's insistence on live sound) is what we find in the film and whilst following the thread of the plot through the terse dialogue is tricky, it nevertheless forms the key to understanding the rest of the film. Fassbinder himself plays the pimp, and the link to the opening footage from the red-light district is apparent. He also portrays the pursuer in the final section of the film where the documentary like footage of the first section and the stage footage give way to a more conventional (but still rather unconventional and stripped down) sequence.

    The final sequence contains more shots than the rest of the film put-together, and they are far shorter in duration. There's an opening shot outside a woman's flat where she kisses her lover goodbye. As he gets into the lift, the camera holds on it and we see it descend. The next shot captures Fassbinder waiting for the man in a VW Beetle outside. The car recalls the opening section where one of the cars that the camera overtakes is a similarly shaded Beetle. A car chase - shot Straub and Huillet style - ensues. The man leaves his car to flee on foot. The pimp catches him up, but give up when the man kicks him away. The man is then reunited with his lover and in the lengthiest shot in the sequence (some 5 minute or so) get married. They return home only to find Fassbinder waiting for him, whereupon the woman shoots him and then gazes out of the window (recalling a similar shot in Der Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) as the (extra-diegetic) music of Bach's "Ascension Oratio" starts up again.

    The three sections, then, unite and complete one another with their interaction. Straub/Huillet's films are always political, but the use of real-life documentary footage to frame the artificial theatre section and the dramatic cinema section makes this one of their more political films (not to mention the Mao quote emblazoned on the walls in the theatrical section). This is not simply an entertaining story about a woman escaping prostitution, it is born of a real-life scenario. Indeed if anything, the demonstrable artificiality of the final two sections highlights the improbability of such an escape in the real world. The woman saved from prostitution by a man who loves her, and by her taking her fate into her own hands is, in the majority cases, a fantasy as pristine as the footage from the church.

    For such radical left-wing filmmakers religious imagery and references abound. The church footage here recalls that from Machorka Muff (1962), not least because of the diagonal, low angle of the camera (this time however, the couple is shot from the rear, and the church is more austere and less ornate) and of course is a regular feature of Anna Magdalena. Then of course there is Moses und Aron (1974) which speaks for itself, but there is also a reference to the law of Moses following the wedding ceremony here (which is taken from the writings of St. John of the Cross). And then, naturally, there are the words of the wedding ceremony and religious element behind the music of Bach's Ascension Oratorio which appears at the start and end of the film.

    In honesty I didn't intend this article to be quite so long, but somehow I just find Huillet and Straub such fascinating filmmakers to write about. In some ways their shorter works are far more suited to this kind of blog-length analysis than their longer ones; the dense, intellectual nature of their films means that there is just too much to explore satisfactorily for the lengthier works. And for anyone who is interested in getting acquainted with this one - which until now has only been available on a French DVD - there's a chance to see it on the big screen on Wednesday (6th March), and it will be released by Grasshopper on Bluray and DVD as an extra for their  release of Der Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach).

    Although I've not cited them directly I owe a debt to the authors of the following words , from whom I've derived many of my ideas about it.
    - Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    - Pummer, Claudia (2016) "(Not Only) For Children and Cavemen: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet" in Ted Fendt (ed.) Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet. Vienna, Filmmuseum Synema Publications, 2016.
    - Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    Friday, March 01, 2019

    The Sword and the Cross (1958)

    La spada e la croce (The Sword and the Cross, 1958) was a vehicle for Canadian actor Yvonne De Carlo who took the leading role of Mary Magdalene, in a film which involves Jesus a great deal more than many such Jesus cameo films, yet still keeps him away from the glare of the camera.1

    De Carlo came to prominence in the 1940s, in a series of films for Universal Pictures which hinted at her future participation in peplum films, but were set in different eras. Her breakthrough film, Salome, Where She Danced (1945) contains the name of a famous (biblical) object of the male gaze, and in two of her next three films  Song of Scheherazade (1947) and Slave Girl (1947) she played a dancer in revealing costumes. It's strange, then, that one of her first scenes in The Ten Commandments (1956) features her sitting out whilst her sisters, Jethro's daughters, dance to impress Moses. Heston's Moses is initially smitten by De Carlo's Sephora, but he seemingly loses interest in her from the moment he meets God at the burning bush. In between she made two fine noirs with two of the genre's great directors, Brute Force (1947) with Jules Dassin and Criss Cross (1949) with Robert Siodmak.

    In many ways, De Carlo's role in La spada is the mirror of her role in Ten Commandments. Here though it is the woman, Mary who is the focus, and she who has the life-changing supernatural encounter which leads to the effective, though not actual, rejection of previous partners in favour of a more spiritual life. However, in contrast to Heston's Moses, De Carlo's Mary does not immediately change track in a Damascene style conversion. Instead her experience is closer to that of Anthony Quinn's eponymous hero in Barabbas (1961) - the encounter is significant, meaningful, but initially troubling.Only later does it become apparent that some sort of metanoia (change of heart) has occurred.

    Magdalene's initial response to the Jesus movement is mockery. Whilst her sister and brother (Martha and Lazarus) are followers, she torments one of his male followers by having him tied up, dressing provacatively and dancing before him in an attempt to "convince him that sin is more amusing than virtue". When she fails, she rips off the mask that her paramour/provider Anan has given her, and when her true face still fails to arouse the man, the camera defocuses on her face and she flees the room.

    It's then she hears Jesus' voice, accompanied by esoteric sounds. Going to her balcony she sees that a ghostly vision of Jesus has materialised, his head hidden in the shadows. The encounter prompts her to scold Anan "Don't touch me. No-one must ever touch me again", but she is filled with fear rather than love or faith. Mary remains in this troubled, haunted state, and resolves to go to the temple to pray, though what kind of conversion has occurred is somewhat ambiguous.

    It's there that she is caught by the mob and becomes the woman accused of adultery from John 8. Indeed the film conflates various biblical women into the figure of Mary Magdalene. In addition to the unnamed woman of John 8, she is also combined with the sister of Martha, and the woman who anoints Jesus' feet. Given the previous scene where Mary at the encouragement of a powerful man dances to add torment a holy man, she also fulfils the role of  Salome.

    Jesus, of course, intervenes. The moment in question is shot from what initially appears to be his point-of-view, but then he walks into shot. Again we see his body, but not his head. But anyone thinking that this encounter will propel her to a sold faith would be mistaken. When Martha mentions Jesus to her, she reacts "The Nazarene! Enough of this talk of the Nazarene". Martha's insistence that Jesus is the messiah only prompts Mary's self-loathing to come to the surface "Why would the real messiah come to me?...His forgiveness means nothing to me. I know what I am, and I know how I'll end." It is only when Lazarus dies and Mary calls out for Jesus that her faith becomes apparent Lazarus is raised, of course, and finally Mary becomes devoted and free to express her faith.

    The Bible tells us so little about Mary Magdalene that all this invention and conflation is necessary to fill out a 90+ minute film, but what is most surprising is that the one passage in the Bible where Mary features most prominently - their post-resurrection meeting in the garden - is omitted. Indeed the film ends somewhat surprisingly and darkly at the foot of the cross moments after Jesus' death. Gaius Marcellus, the roman centurion who she has, through the course of the film, come to love and then pass over in favour of the messiah, tries to dismiss what has just happened. "Jesus will be forgotten after his death" he suggests, as if to help. But, by this stage, Mary has been inspired: "No", she counters, "it is by his death that he will begin to live". The film ends a little darkly, but given the audience knows the rest of the story it is not without hope. Perhaps such an ending poses a question to the audience. If nothing else it's one way of avoiding one of the central dilemmas of biblical epics - how to sufficiently appease the opposing beliefs of faithful and faithless about the events being depicted. That said, if this is the reason for ending the film at this point the logic seems inconsistent. Jesus has already healed Lazarus and gone beyond the miracles in the Bible by adding gthe miraculous (and somewhat spooky) materialisation following Mary's dance.

    The materialisation scene is just one example of the film's unusual attitude to Jesus' physical body, Whilst Jesus is in one sense present far more than in films such as Ben-Hur and The Robe, the manner in which the camera is never truly permitted to fully behold him. In many scenes, including  when Jesus prevents Mary from being stoned and her visit to him in a cell before his execution, we see just his arm, or hear his voice as his body stands just off camera. In the materialisation scene his head is so hidden in the shadows it caused one scholar to mistake his body for being "headless".2 Other scenes, such as his appearance before a crowd in Pilate's courtyard, are shot from afar, so that the audience can just about make out his body in full, but cannot distinguish the features of his face. Finally we come to the crucifixion scene which uses a combination of the above strategies. Firstly the scene is shown from afar; then as the sky grows dark and a storm begins to rage the camera closes in on Mary at the foot of the cross; then in two shot of Mary and Gaius Marcellus, Jesus' legs appear between them at the top of the shot. This is followed by the camera slowing panning upwards to reveal the body of the crucified Jesus in full, but in darkness contrasted against the sky. Finally, seconds before the end of the film, a flash of lightning finally reveals Jesus' body in for just a split second.

    It's tempting to speculate as to why the film adopts such an attitude towards Jesus' physical presence. Given the final reveal, it works as a metaphor for Mary's slowly ascending faith finally reaching completion. But it also suggests that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the nature of the incarnation and the idea of Jesus fully human body.

    The film's attitude to Jesus' body contrasts starkly with its attitude to Mary's and whilst the decision to make Mary the central character could be read as a more feminist approach to the subject, the objectification of Mary's body is just one of a number of concerns with its attitude to gender. In particular Mary's financial dependence on Anan is contrasted with her concerns, at least, that she is growing too old to retain his affections. De Carlo was only 36 at the time.

    This peaks in the dance scene. Mary is clearly hurt when Anan gives her a mask to wear during her performance, interpreting his insistence as a sign that he no loner finds her face attractive. When her masked performance fails to arose the captive follower of Jesus she throws it off in the hope that her face will succeed where her body has not. It does not. The man's rejection of her body seems in accordance with its almost gnostic attitude to Jesus' body. The film is also guilty of double standards in this respect on the one hand sexualising De Carlo's body in order to boost the film's box office appeal, whilst on the other, chastising Mary for appearing sexually "available".

    Also problematic in terms of gender is the film's conflation of various female characters in the Bible into one, Mary. This contrasts with La spada's fleshing out of the role of various male characters who are only mentioned in passing in the biblical text. Other women do appear in the film notably Mary's virginal sister Martha and Pilate's wife Claudia, but the film's contrast between "virgin" and "whore" is the person of Mary is problematic even despite the fact she is not quite portrayed as being a prostitute.

    That said La spada was arguably the first in a string of Biblical pepla where a woman was the leading character. The following year Solomon and Sheba (1959) would significantly enhance the queen's role to the extent that by the end of the film the audience is more invested in her character than that of her male counterpart. 1960's Esther and the King followed the two-names pattern but relegated Esther's co-star to a nameless "King", in the title at least. The Story of Ruth also released in 1960, went a step further and only named the female charcter in its title.

    1 - Various cuts of this film are available including a 97 minute English version and a slightly longer 101 minute Italian version which includes the trial before Pilate and a scene in which the subsequently freed Barabbas chokes Anan to death. Barry Atkinson also notes the existence of an even shorter 88 minute cut.2
    2 - Atkinson, Barry (2018) Heroes Never Die: The Italian Peplum Phenomenon 1950-1967. London: Midnight Marquee Press. p.81.

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