• 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.

    Saturday, May 04, 2019

    The Bible (2013) - Part 1*


    I've been writing up reviews for individual episodes The Bible on a sort of ad hoc basis. Essentially, when I revisit one because it touches on something I am researching, I try to write it up then, having only reviewed the series as a whole when it first came out. So now at last I have returned to Episode 1*(by this I mean the first episode if you are looking at the series as ten episodes long, but in some places it aired as five longer episodes, so I guess it's the first half of episode one if that's you).

    The episode, and therefore the whole series, starts with the words of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and snippets from various other famous speeches where other famous orators have referenced God and/or the Bible. Many Bible film makers have attempted to give their production gravitas at the very beginning by use of similarish devices - think Cecil B. DeMille's opening lecture at the start of The Ten Commandments (1956) or Orson Welles' authoritative sounding narration at the start of King of Kings (1961). This is a contemporary twist, even as it is rooted in history, it is more recent history, and rather than riffing on ancient artefacts or texts, it adopts an approach more in touch with our age, one awash with soundbites.

    The creation and fall part of the series is perhaps most notable for its portrayal of Satan, which many noted at the time looks remarkably like then then non-conservative president, Barack Obama. This time around, it's even more striking. The makers denied it, of course, but it's hard to escape the feeling that even if this wasn't deliberate, it perhaps betrayed their deeper feelings. Other interesting casting includes the choice of a Scottish actor (David Rintoul) whose Scottish accent lends the role with a sense of connection with the great outdoors and dramatic weather (at the very least, constant rain).

    The Noah segment is startlingly brief, and is ended by a scene which starts with a God shot of Rintoul before zooming out. It's initially rather well done, but then the special effects kick in and it speeds up to reveal the whole globe covered in water. Not entirely convincing special effects and over the top sound effects, are something of a hall mark of this series. We get both here and the passage of time has hardly improved them. The vision of the entire globe covered in water must have played nicely to the programme's conservative viewer base. I can't help but wonder (admittently rather flippantly) whether they ever considered zooming out to show the water covering an earth that was flat...

    The next segment features Abram and Sarai, though here they are called simply Abraham and Sarah from the start. We start with a Abraham praying on a mountain top (using the obligatory helicopter footage) and hearing God call him out. We then cut to Sarah still at home on her knees, also prayin. Only he seems to hear God, however. Is this meant to reflect a reality - Abraham free to go for mountain walks whilst Sarah is stuck at home with the chores, or to legitimise a similar model today? I'm not sure quite how I'd like to see this played out, but I find the filmmakers' vision here disturbing. I suppose there's a chance that's the point, but that's not the impression I'm left with.

    Whilst Sarah is happy to believe her husband, with just a smile to convey her acceptance, Lot's wife is considerably more dubious from the start. I really dislike it when filmmakers stack the deck like this, implying Lot's wife was never really on board with God's plans. It not only makes it so much easier to overlooks the ethical problems of her fate in the text, but it also lays heavy interpretation on it. Lot's (unnamed) wife's fate isn't portrayed as just a momentary lapse, it's the result of her general attitude. Needless to say, she is cast in this negative light in almost every scene.

    Once Lot and his wife split from Abraham and his men, it's Sarah's turn to become the negative foil. Now it is she who mopes grumpily around and here she actively denies she will have a child. She tries to prevent Abraham from rescuing Lot and his clan (in a rare adaptation of that incident, which does cast Abraham in a different light, one that is, usually exorcised from most portrayals of him). When three visitors appear and suggest she will still have a child, she gulps rather than laughs. The three visitors are interesting as the two angels are non-white and the third is clearly meant to be Jesus. I quite want to go back and look at how the camera and the mise en shot indicates this without ever making it explicit.

    Which brings us to the most ill-fitting part of this episode, if not the entire series, namely the scene in Sodom and Gomorrah. It's hard to be even more over-the-top than a text that has a man attempting to buy off a crowd of would-be angel rapists by offering them his daughters instead, but somehow The Bible manages it. The daughters are mere children here and the whole exchange passage (which obviously reflects very badly on Lot, the supposed hero) is dropped. What we get instead is a long and gratuitous scene of armour-clad angels beating up/killing a huge number of male Sodomites, in fairly graphic ways. As I'm sure I have mentioned before somewhere (but can't remember where), the scene lasts far longer than the entire creation sequence, or than the story of Noah. Later Isaac, Jacob and Esau's stories will be, by and large, omitted, yet this imagined scene of violent divine retribution just goes on and on. It's reveals a strange set of priorities. Moreover, do the angels not realise all these people are about to get the burning sulphur treatment? It's hard to think of a moment that typifies the series more, and exposes its claims for authenticity more starkly, than this.

    Ultimately, here Lot's wife's crime could be interpreted as her not trusting Lot, as opposed to not trusting God. For some reason Lot has responsibility for both daughters, rather than both parents taking one each, and so Mrs Lot manages to get a little ahead. She only turns looks back, therefore,  because the other three fall behind. But of course, she has already been deemed guilty by the earlier scenes, so the filmmakers apparently consider that they have done enough to convince the audience that this is somehow justified.

    The last incident in this episode is, of course, Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac, meaning the adult life of Isaac and pretty much everything to do with his two sons Esau and Jacob, the father of Israel, is omitted. It's a reminder that for all it's claims to historical authenticity this is very much a Christian, rather than a Jewish take on the text.

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