• 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 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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    • At 7:32 am, June 23, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      You had me at Penélope Cruz (!) as the Virgin Mary. I can't believe I haven't heard of this movie.

      The Immaculate Conception is a Catholic doctrine according to which Mary was conceived in a state of permanent sanctifying grace, without ever having experienced original sin. I don't know how the filmmakers could have depicted a zygotic Mary in such a way as to indicate that she did not have original sin, so it only makes sense that they avoided it.


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