• 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, June 29, 2019

    2015's French Jesus Film - Histoire de Judas

    I know I will have heard the name of this film - Histoire de Judas - but I'm only just wising up to its existence. Shot in 2015 it's a French production, but apparently filmed in one of the Berber parts of Algeria. As I say, I've not really heard much about this, let alone seen it, and there's not a great deal about it on IMDb. I do know, however, that long-time Jesus films scholar Reinhold Zwick is preparing something on it, though we will have to wait a couple of years to get to read it.
    There is however, a nice write up of the film and director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's work in general by Dan Sallitt. Sallitt introduced the film when it played in New York in 2016. Ameur-Zaïmeche was born in Algeria and most of the cast and crew seem to have similar origins. There are a couple of other reviews of it at MUBI, as well as one from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat who I've crossed paths with before. MUBI also reveal that it was the winner of the Ecumenical Jury prize at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

    In addition, various sites have a short trailer which provides a number of shots. The most interesting of these is what looks to be a triumphal entry scene, only one where Jesus is carrying a donkey foal, rather than the other way round. A major element of the story is the redemption of the Judas character and there seems to be an element of the Judas as a buddy element of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

    Sallitt's review provides the most interesting details however
    One interesting addition that can perhaps be mentioned without spoiling the film is the important character of the madman who impersonates Jesus and functions in the film as his double, and who eventually is the focus of a emotional scene on the site of the crucifixion.
    This sounds a little like Philip Pullman's book "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" though not having read it or seen the film I'm hardly in a place to comment. I'll try and dig this one out and report back.

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    Saturday, June 15, 2019

    Per amore solo per amore (1993)

    Giovanni Veronesi's Per amore, solo per amore (For Love, Only for Love, 1993) is probably best known for featuring a young Penelope Cruz as the Virgin Mary. Yet Cruz is not the only actress to play Mary in the film as it starts while she is barely more than a toddler. This enables the film to focus more on Mary and Joseph than about Jesus, per se, whilst deftly avoiding the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Nevertheless, it is the film's portrayal of Joseph that has drawn accusations of blasphemy, though it hardly faced the degree of outrage that films such as Hail Mary (1985) and Last Temptation of Christ (1988) experienced.

    Whilst Maria/Mary starts the film as a little girl, Giuseppe/Joseph is already in his thirties. It's often said that Mary was quite possibly only around thirteen at the time Jesus was conceived. In contrast, Roman Catholic tradition, seeking to uphold belief in Mary's perpetual virginity despite the Bible talking about Jesus's brothers and sisters, has often argued that before his betrothal to Mary, Joseph had already been married, fathered children and been widowed, making him already well into adulthood. Whilst the idea of a middle aged man marrying a thirteen year old seems uncomfortable to us, this has been culturally acceptable in many cultures over the centuries. Personally speaking that makes me uncomfortable enough, and by portraying much as significantly young still when she first meets and is, in some way attracted to Joseph only increases the unease.

    The area of contention is more concerning Joseph's behaviour at the start of the film. When he encounters a thief, Socrates, stealing his water, he initially reacts threateningly, but then takes him in, and the two become life-long friends. Shortly afterwards, Joseph arrives in the village during a stoning, shot, initially, rather strikingly, with a point of view shot from the victim's perspective. In addition to linking with the story of Joseph's son preventing such a stoning later in his life, this device strongly places the viewer on the side of the victim, such that even though she dies, Joseph's attempts at intervention clearly marks him as on the same (moral) side as the audience.

    Shortly afterwards, however, other aspects of Joseph character begin to be revealed. He instantly strikes up a friendship with the young Mary for example, but he also repeatedly visits a prostitute in the village and gets drunk, behaviour in sharp contrast with his traditional image of moral uprightness. Joseph's liberalism clashes with that of the local religious leader, Cleofa, who, in the clumsy assignment of modern categories has a more culturally conservative perspective. It is he who upholds the mob's right to stone an adulteress, yet he also opposes Joseph's behaviour. In an early twist (it's been 25+ years) it turns out that Cleofa is Mary's father, setting the stage nicely for changing attitudes as both men move more towards the positive middle ground between them..

    These establishing scenes occupy the first third of the film, and the film then changes gear as the we leap forward in time and Cruz is introduced as Maria for the first time. It's has clearly been a while since they have seen each other and the wordless alternating point of view one-shots as they are reunited suggest the two simultaneously falling for each other at 'first' sight. There's a lengthy working-out of these feelings however including, Joseph chasing through back streets just to catch another glimpse of Mary, an unusual communal gathering that seems part way between a speed-dating event and a meat market and Joseph wrestling with another would-be suitor of Mary's until he passes out. Eventually, though Joseph makes a big romantic proposal, she accepts, and then he and Mary's father come to an agreement over her dowry

    But then Mary leaves town suddenly and unexpectedly. Because this film is from Joseph's point of view both he and the audience are left in the dark. It gradually occurs to us what has happened because we know the story, but Joseph knows nothing until Mary's father arrives at Joseph's house one night to return the bride-price. Joseph is distraught. What's interesting that we never see the annunciation, with or without an angel, but neither does anyone seem to blame Joseph for the pregnancy (though I might have missed something in the Italian). Eventually, after Joseph decides to continue with the marriage Mary tells him about the message from the angel, but we only experience it as he does. We the audience have to take her word for it just as he does. Just as he's getting used to that he find out that they will also not be consummating the marriage. This is also worked out very much of his point of view. We witness his desire for his wife, and him struggling to come to terms with that. More drunkenness.

    By the time it comes to the biblical part of the story in the final third, the film has reconciled itself to a more conventional ending. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting flourishes. For a start, Socrates accompanies Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. There's also a moment when the three of them encounter crucifixions on the road to Bethlehem, with people stoning those on the crosses. This pairs with the earlier stoning scene and of course the future crucifixion of Mary and Joseph's son and perhaps highlights the link between the people attempting to stone women also being complicit in Jesus's death at the hands of the Romans.

    Another unusual touch is the location for the birth, which takes place under a natural shelter/open cave rather than in a more 'conventional' stable. In particular it's notable that there is no visits from shepherds or wise men, but a sizeable crowd do arrive to gaze at the new baby. And then the family move on with the film mainly having finished.

    First, however, there's a final epilogue, which the film changes to eight years later (from the twelve in P.F.Campanile's source novel). Mary and Joseph and his old friend Socrates are reunited just as Joseph's life is coming to an end. There's a final conversation between the two men, most of which was lost on me, but what is significant is that we see, more or less simultaneously, Socrates washing Jesus' feet, and Mary's feet being washed by her, now, eight year old son. I think there's perhaps an implication here that whilst Joseph has not witnessed angels as Mary has, that nevertheless his own silent guardian (God-figure?) has been with him all along. Certainly this explains how it is that Socrates provides the film's voice over, even though he loses the power of speech very early in the film.

    It's frustrating for me that my listening skills in Italian are still rather poor because I'm fairly sure there is plenty that I am missing. What's clear however is that the film attempts to go beyond the rather limited character of Joseph we find in the Gospels (where he is not much more than a re-embodiment of his dream-responsive, Old Testament namesake) and indeed the saint of church tradition. Whilst some will object to the more unholy elements of that portrayal it's nevertheless an interesting attempt to meld some of the things we do know about that culture with modern notions of love, morality and faithfulness. It avoids being twee without feeling the need to be gritty and there are some nice shots of the Tunisian desert which make the most of the advantages of the widescreen aspect ratio.

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    Tuesday, June 11, 2019

    A Child Called Jesus (1987)

    To those of us used to modern biographies, the paucity of information about the first thirty or so years of Jesus' life seems rather strange. Only half the gospels even mention his birth, and only one mentions any incident that happens to him between infancy and the start of his ministry. At least some of our ancestors shared our bemusement at this. Additional, non-canonical writings spring up in the following centuries such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Protevangelium of James which different parts of the church treat with varying level of respect or scepticism.

    It's proved a more fertile subject for recent artists too. In the US, 2016's The Young Messiah was itself an adaptation of Anne Rice's earlier "Christ the Lord" series of novels, whilst other films such as Jesus (1999) and La sacra famiglia (The Holy Family, 2006) have also sought to fill some of these puzzling silences.

    Perhaps the most significant of the 'recent' films to explore this period in Jesus' life is the 1987 mini-series A Child Called Jesus (Un bambino nome Gesù). An Italian and American co-production it follows a common practice of dubbing sound back onto the visual footage back in the studio, meaning the American version was dubbed, and not particularly brilliantly. It makes it hard to find a version in better (but still not perfectly) dubbed Italian with subtitles.

    The film starts dramatically in Bethlehem, moments before Herod's soldiers arrive. The film's first words are literally Joseph being told to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, and in following scene we see an almost distressing pallid Herod being dipped into and out of a huge bath of Arabian mud, fearing the prophecy from Micah 5:2 about a ruler coming from Bethlehem, despite the slaughter he has carried out seeking to prevent it.

    There's a jump forward seven years, but whereas Young Messiah chose around this time to send Jesus and his parents back from Egypt to Galilee, here we find that they have not yet even properly reached Egypt yet, instead they have built a new life in a town on the border between Egypt and what a subtitle calls "Palestine". Director Franco Rossi (who also directed RAI's version of Quo Vadis? two years earlier) captures the uneasy feel of a border town, not least in a scene where a rebel zealot seems to be grooming child soldiers to fight the Romans).

    The comparatively safe life Jesus' family have found there though is about to come to an end, however. Unfortunately a fictional character called Sefir (though he sometimes calls himself Nathan Ben Joab) is pleased to have finally tracked them down. Sefir, who is played by Pierre Clémenti, who once had the role of Jesus himself in Philippe Garrel's Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), claims variously to be Syrian, or from Qumran, or perhaps to have been one of the original battalion of soldiers that Herod dispatched to Bethlehem.

    Whatever his origins, he is determined to catch up with Jesus and his parents and finish what he started 7 years ago. Firstly he builds an alliance with a Roman commander called Titus Rufus. Then he employs a killer called Chela, who turns up dead when his attempt to bury Jesus under an avalanche of rock fails. Jesus, it is implied, only survives because of his mother's desperate prayers for him. Sefir tries to blame Joseph, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that this isn't true. For Joseph this is the clear sign of the need for decisive action. Despite recently accepting a lucrative contract making some benches for the local synagogue, he decides to take his family properly into Egypt, to Alexandria.

    It's around this point that we begin to see the first of a number of surprising flashes forward to events during Jesus' ministry. Though it's a little unclear at first as to what exactly Jesus is witnessing these echoes from the future, it gradually that he is experiencing these visions, even if he doesn't know that he himself is the character appearing in them. The first time it's Jesus' question to the disciples "Who do you say that I am"?, but later we will get flashes of his healing Jairus' daughter, the miraculous catch of fish, the Wedding at Cana, Gethsemane and finally his burial. There are also a few indications that some of his later teaching imagery was picked up during his childhood (when a shepherd tells him of his willingness to leave the 99 sheep to find the lost one, for example).

    The other element of Jesus ministry that is foreshadowed here is his supposed rejection of some of the established areas of Jewish practice. At one point surprised at the complexities of lighting a lamp in the correct way he says "If lighting a lamp is complicated it would be easier if people would sit under the moon". Shortly afterwards we see him sizing up a money-changer, as if already wise to the possibility that he might be shortchanging his customers. Most strikingly, when Joseph suggests buying a dove to sacrifice in the temple Jesus objects, saying "but doesn't Almighty God prefer to hear his birds alive, greeting the morning?" What's clear is that Jesus is a strongly opinionated child, who, at least initially, his mother is finds a little troublesome. Gradually through the course of the film she stops chiding him and starts listening and respecting him.

    Much of this could be seen as anti-Judaism, yet the film is very clear about Jesus' Jewishness. As well as constantly showing Jesus, Joseph and Mary in and out of synagogues and temples, essential connections between his family and the other Jews are made in every community they encounter. At one point we see a Jewish religious meeting and witness a reading of the Ecclesiastes 3 passage about the passing of time. Particularly surprising is the scenes where the Holy Family join in with the Feast of the Tabernacles.

    In addition to portraying various Jewish rituals, it also evokes some early Christian, but not biblical, texts as well, most notably an incident found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus creates a bird out of the clay. It's not Jesus' only miracle, however, in another scene, towards the end of the film where Jesus himself is just starting to become aware of his powers, we see him heal a female leper. There's even a suggestion that after Jesus and Mary have been separated from Joseph, after he is thought to have been killed in a fire, that Jesus is involved in reuniting them.

    If the dubbing is the worst element of the film then its visuals are certainly the best, even on the somewhat blurry/grainy copy on DVD. Rossi's camera frames the natural beauty of the locations beautifully, even in its native narrowscreen. It helps of course using some of the same locations as Rossellini used in Il Messia (1975).

    Whilst his interiors are a little less striking there are still some nice looking shots, not least the views of the desert and the film's stunning visual climax. But Rossi also utilises several nice motifs such as using background objects to create halos at various points. Another of his motifs is framing eyes behind/through wooden lattices. This device is used several times, especially of Mary. It's something that could be interpreted almost romantically, an observation my friend Peter Chattaway makes regarding similar framing in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    However, it's notable that eyes are mentioned a few other times as well. One particularly notable incident hears one of the adults asks Jesus not to look at him with his "puppy dog eyes". In some ways I can't help but wonder if this is a retort to another Italian Jesus-film-maker called Franco. Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was famous for Robert Powell's azure, unblinking eyes. Here Rossi voices the concern that eyes can have influential power, though it also enables those feeling its pull to escape them. Perhaps most significant, given the prevalence of eyes in this film are the only words I recall the boy Jesus speaking that are recognisable from the Gospels. Towards the end of the film, Jesus speaks from Matt 6:22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light".

    Ultimately, of course, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are all united and end up back in Nazareth. That's not so much a spoiler as to say simply that whilst the film is almost entirely invention, it does not contradict the specific things the Bible does say about Jesus' childhood. Jesus and his family return home with plenty of time before Jesus gets lost in Jerusalem. It must have been tempting to include that story in this film, but it's to the film's credit that it has strong enough convictions about what it is trying to do that it avoids it. It's perhaps a little overlong and you have to put up with the dubbing, but it poses some interesting questions and serves up some great images as well.

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