• 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


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    Friday, April 26, 2019

    Matriarchy and Feminism in Genesis

    I've been looking at the biblical Matriarchs on film and particularly how that is viewed from a feminist perspective. Part of the problem with this starts with the question of who exactly qualifies as a Matriarch in the Bible. For the men it is easy - the Hebrew patriarchs are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the nation. For the women though it is more complicated. The inclusion of Sarai and Rebekah is simple enough, but Jacob had two wives Rachel and Leah., Furthermore, some of his sons were the children of his servants Bilhah and Zilpah, should they be included? And if so what about Abraham's servant Hagar? And then there's the question of Eve, technically she is the mother of humanity itself, but there seems a stronger link somehow between her motherhood and Adam's fatherhood. Should she be included in such a discussion? Should Noah's unnamed wife?

    Like the biblical stories themselves, film adaptations of Genesis have tended to prioritise their Patriarchs over their Matriarchs. Cinema has tended to adopt a male point of view and done little to minimise the inherent sexist assumptions of the text.

    Perhaps the Matriarch, if we can call her that, who has fared least worst amongst the films based on Genesis is Eve, who typically enjoys as much screen time as her husband. That said Eve portrayal is typically no less problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, despite the fact that most theologians would tend to accept a metaphorical interpretation of the story of The Fall, the vast majority of film adaptations literalise it and hence tend to portray Eve as more culpable than her husband. This is frequently intensified by the number of films in which Eve is initially portrayed as the object of the male gaze. Several films emphasise this point further by ensuring the audience's first sight of Eve being via a shot from Adam's point of view.

    The second reason that portrayals of Eve are problematic is their sexualisation of Eve. Whilst Eve's nakedness is found in the text, it is often used as a form of titillation. Eve is typically depicted as a slim, beautiful, young, and often blond woman whose body is almost entirely exposed but for the odd strategically-placed plant. One imagines that pornographic films such as Bible (dir: Wakefield Poole, 1974), do not stray too far from the approach of the more mainstream releases.

    Sarai and Hagar
    In recent years more progressive visions of the women of Genesis have begun to emerge, in contrast to films such as The Bible (dir: John Huston, 1966) which, for example, leaves the text's repeated shaming of the childless Sarai very much unchallenged. One more recent film to draw attention to the problematic portrayal of Sarai in the text is 2003's comic The Real Old Testament (dir: Curtis Hannum) which juxtaposes ancient values against modern ones by relocating the characters from Genesis in the format of a reality TV show (specifically The Real World which has been running since 1992). As there is so little biblical material to define her, Sarai (Kate Connor) naturally channels modern values and thus appears as a more sane, rational character than her more awe-struck and compliant husband or than the egotistical "God". The narrative sticks closely to the Bible, but the camera gives Sarah more time and a fairer hearing than most films she is presented as the wittiest and most attractive character of the three. When God and Abraham talk about circumcising Abraham's entire tribe or sacrificing Isaac, she double-takes or raises an eyebrow to the camera expecting viewers will see the same peculiarity as she does.†

    Sadly the next major portrayal of Sarah, in the TV series The Bible (2013) (pictured) reverts very much to type, unmoved by the fifty years of feminism since Huston's earlier film. Few films seek to understand Sarai, let alone sympathise with her, often depicting her dealings with Hagar in an even poorer light than the texts, for example making Hagar carry heavy loads even when very heavily pregnant.

    However. the portrayal of Hagar is often similarly unsympathetic. Whereas the text says only that she "despised" Sarai, several films show her criticising Sarai to her face for being barren. I wrote more about this in my piece on films about Ishmael a few years ago.

    The intention here consistently seems to be to portray Abraham as decent, sympathetic and essentially good. Unfortunately given that he would have been her social superior. He comes across as weak and controlled by Sarah, rather than the master of his own destiny. The consistently shrewish portrayals of Sarah are bolstered by many films using a voice-over to inform the audience that God has also reassured Abraham that he is making the correct decision. The efforts to beatify Abraham also extend to the portrayal of Ishmael's conception. Almost universally this is depicted as Sarah's suggestion, for example in Abraham (Joseph Sargent, 1994).

    In contrast to Sarai, the Bible portrays Rebekah in marginally more positive light. She hears God for herself (indeed her husband is bypassed) and takes an active role in ensuring the words she has heard from him come to pass. Yet, if anything, Sarah's daughter-in-law Rebekah fairs even worse in cinema and television. Things started well enough, with Henri Andréani making a film for Pathé in which she was the lead character. Rebecca (1913) told the story of Abraham's servant meeting with her at the well in village of Nacaor. She has featured in few films since, however, with Marcello Baldi's Giacobbe: L'uomo che  lottò con Dei (Jacob: The Man who Fought with God, 1963) and Peter Hall's Jacob (1994) being notable exceptions. In both she is shown as the initiator of Jacob's deception of Isaac in order to fulfil his mother's prophecy. In Baldi's film, Jacob view's Esau selling of his birthright for a bowl of soup as "just a joke", but Rebekah has the foresight to see it as a fulfilment of her prophecy. Hall's film further justifies Rebekah's actions by giving her the additional insight that, of her two sons, Jacob would make the better leader of the tribe after her husband death. Giving her the additional insight that Jacob would make a better leader of the tribe than his brother because he is "a man who cares about the tribe", emphasising her wisdom rather than her deception.

    Leah and Rachel
    Unsurprisingly both films also feature Rachel and Leah. The actresses playing the role in Baldi's film looks so physically different that it is hard to imagine they are sisters. Rachel is blonde and fair-skinned, whereas Leah has looks more typical of the region, but also has noticeable hair on upper lip. Given the way that the Bible contrasts Rachel's beauty with her supposedly "plain" sister (Gen 29:17-19), it is not difficult to interpret the differing appearance of these two actresses as reinforcing racist/sexist western notions of perceived beauty.

    One incident that tends to get very little coverage in bilical film is the passage from Genesis 30 dealing with the birth of Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah's children. Typically the important and more human, fallible details of the passage tend to get glossed over to produce a mere genealogy on the "sons of Jacob" (when his involvement would have been relatively minor compared to that of the four women). There is an significant amount of potential human interest in this story which rarely gets picked up by dramatists. There's also a slight comic undertone to the text's portrayal of Jacob's wives trading sex with him for the hallucinogenic fertility-aid mandrake plant (Gen. 30:14-17). Only two films depict this incident, the word-for-word adaptation Genesis (director unnamed, 1979), produced by John Heyman for The New Media Bible and The Real Old Testament which makes the most of the peculiarity of the passage. Again the spoofing of both the biblical text and 90s youth culture mean that the incident is played as a bunch of college students getting high, where sex is a far lower ranking commodity than drugs.

    Having died before the start of the film, Rachel is physically absent from La Genèse (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, 1998), yet her absence (along with the 'loss' of her son Joseph) haunts the film, which charts the woes of Jacob's clan later years. Beset by grief, Jacob remains in his tent for much of the film, only being persuaded to leave when relations with the neighbouring tribes come to a crisis point. Unwilling or unable to cope with his troublesome sons and in fear of his brother the tribe is cast into crisis which manifests itself in various ways not least the story of another kind-of-Matriarch Tamar, and her dealings with her husband's father.

    Leah, however, has survived, making La Genèse the only film to depict her but not her sister. It gives voice to the unfair treatment she has received from Jacob. In her opening line she exclaims "I have no husband! My children are fatherless. I have no place in your heart." She is also shown as an active character protesting about the rape of her daughter Dinah by interrupting and disrupting the conversation between Jacob and Hamor, overturning Hamor's gifts and also complaining about her sons failure to respond properly to Dinah's rape.

    Dinah is the subject of arguably the most radical retelling of the Matriarch's stories, The Red Tent (Roger Young, 2014) which not only tells various stories from the latter part of Genesis from her perspective, but also places the other women in the stories at its narrative centre. Dinah describes her mother Leah as "strong and capable and splendidly arrogant" and Zilpah and Bilhah as aunts, rather than mere slaves. At the centre of the story (and it is implied the tribe) is this community of women and their private space, the red tent of the title. It also takes the radical step of making the bridal night swap Rachel's idea, to which Leah acquiesces, unbeknownst to either man. The series over- idealises the way these four women share one husband, however, alternatively it could be read as highlighting the impossible expectation that one woman should embody all qualities: wisdom, beauty and motherhood.

    I've not had a chance to survey all the films based on Genesis for this piece, but I find it interesting how more recent films have attempted to grapple with some of these issues, even as others manifestly have not. There's a challenge at the heart of it all however: given that this was a deeply patriarchal society and the similarly patriarchal nature of the texts, how should these stories be portrayed. Whilst the approach of The Red Tent has its admirable qualities, it does just end up making things a little too cosy. Jacob is a good man and the women generally get on and so the potential issues are glossed over. At the other end of the scale The Real Old Testament is so scathing in its approach it rejects and space for genuine spirituality despite the patriarchal society and assumptions of the times the story occurred in and was written about. La Genese perhaps manages a good balance of the two - the nature of the society is exposed, but that is very much at a human level, allowing the film's finale to still allow for the possibility of a God who may one day right these wrongs.

    †In one of my favourite moments in this film God visit's the couple's tent in the middle of the night whilst Sarai is sleeping, involved much shrugging and mugging for the camera. Later in a camera diary moment she observes "It's like, he invented time…can he tell it?"



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