• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, December 30, 2019

    Sopralluoghi in Palestina per Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1965)
    (Scouting for Locations in Palestine for The Gospel of Matthew)


    Those who follow this blog regularly will know I've focused quite a bit on Pasolini's Il vangelo second Matteo (1964) this year, but one thing I'd never watched until today is the documentary he made around the time of the film's release concerning his trip to Palestine scouting for locations. I've heard various people discuss Sopralluoghi in Palestina per Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Scouting for Locations in Palestine for The Gospel of Matthew, 1965) but never actually seen it for myself.

    The documentary is one of a number of Pasolini's minor works that he produced around his five major early sixties films (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, Il vangelo secondo Matteo and Hawks and Sparrows) including La Rabbia (1963) and Comizi d'amore (1965) but it's also one of a series of films he made as part of the creative process for films set outside of Italy. In this case it's Palestine for his Jesus film, but around the same time he was exploring India (resulting in Appunti per un film sull'India [Notes for a film on India] eventually released in 1968) and later Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes toward an African Orestes, 1970). Whilst neither of these latter films were actually made Pasolini did release these "making of" style films.

    The jist of the documentary, summarised a hundred times by those discussing Il vangelo is that Pasolini headed out to the Holy Land and found it disappointingly unsuitable for his purposes. Usually it's the modernisation which is cited, but, as it turns out this is far from the only factor. In addition to a film crew, Pasolini is typically accompanied by Don Andrea Carraro, "a Biblical scholar of the Catholic left group Pro Civitate Christiana" (Gordon 2012, 39) and Pasolini is struck by the differences between the two of them. He praises Don Andrea's "absolute, extreme mental order" notes their varying usage of the word 'spiritual'. "When you say 'spiritual' you mean, above all, religious, intimate and religious. For me 'spiritual' corresponds to aesthetics." Perhaps most significantly is Pasolini's observation that he "tended to see the world in Christ's times a little like what was before my eyes here. A rather wretched world, pastoral, archaic, shattered. While Don Andrea always tended to see even in the settings that surrounded Christ a certain dignity."

    The pair start out in the countryside near the Jordan river having found an exceptional panorama in the midst of a long drive through "modern, industrialised" countryside. They take in Mount Tabor ("similar to Soratte") and Lake Tiberias before arriving at Nazareth, "a landscape contaminated by the present." The concept of "contamination" is a regular one in Pasolini, something that had fewer negative connotations to his contemporaries, or indeed to himself later in his life.

    Interestingly when the pair visit the region near Capernaum, Pasolini is struck by "extreme smallness, the poverty, the humility of this place". Given how his final film ended up, it seems that this moment had a significant impact on his thinking. "As far as I am concerned", he concludes a little later, "I think I have completely transformed my imagination of the holy places. More than adapting the places to my mind's eye, I'll have to adapt my mind's eye to the places." Further on he is struck again "What most intrigues me is this panorama, that Christ should have chosen such an arid place so bare, so lacking in every amenity".

    But by now the negative factors of shooting in the region are starting to add up. The modernisation  / transformation of the landscape is important; but Pasolini also cites the lack of scenography and backdrops; and even the fact that it will be difficult to find extras since the people all have such stable employment. Later he complains that "either there is too much poverty...or too much colour...or else, it is excessively modern"

    The next stop - in a village of the Druse Arabs - provides both "a lovely moment", but Pasolini decides the faces of the residents are unsuitable because they "have not been touched by the preaching of Christ". It's here some of the worst of Pasolini comes through as he describes them as "pre-Christian faces, pagan, indifferent, happy, savage." These kind of racist attitudes to non-European people is all too common in these location scouting films, even though Pasolini is seemingly well-meaning he can be patronising or irrationally unobjective.

    This highlights one of the problems running throughout the entire enterprise, namely that neither Pasolini not Don Andrea really known what the Holy Land and its inhabitants looked like 2000 years earlier. The trees that now weep into the Jordan would not even have existed. Various forms of erosion, farming, war, climate change, conquests and land reclamation have all left the ancient landscape largely unknowable, and whilst more recent studies have determined more about the faces of our ancestors, it is not to the level that could be distinguishable in film based on their hearing, or otherwise, of a particular preacher. It's easier to imagine how today's landscape may differ from that of the 1800s, but beyond that is largely conjecture.

    The problem of modernisation is brought into sharper focus with Pasolini's visit to a Kibbutz at Baram, one of many which have "reshape(d) the landscape with absolute modernity". There he talks more to members of the collective, but Pasolini keeps his communist politics to himself. This passage feels a little out of step with the rest of the film so perhaps this is his way of drawing attention to it, but it's hard to tell whether his approval for communal values are outweighing his objections to the modernisation (which is inherent in these Kibbutzim).

    Beersheba follows and then Jerusalem, which Pasolini prefers to Nazarerth, calling it "grandiose" and finding something so "historically sublime in her appearance" that it "cannot but instil the film with a different stylistic identity". Most interestingly at this point (Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem) "Christ's
    preaching, till now solely religious... due to objectively historical events becomes a public and political fact as well as a religious one."

    From there they head to Bethlehem where Pasolini seems to finally admit defeat that he is not going to find "a village which has maintained its integrity through the millennia". "The biblical world appears" he sighs "but it resurfaces like wreckage".

    The film ends in the supposedly nearby location of the Ascension, and with the surprising closing words that the Ascension marks "the most sublime moment of the entire evangelical story: the moment in which Christ leaves us alone to search for him."

    Pasolini is often praised for being a pioneer and visionary, and this and his African and Indian films do seem to have paved the way for the making of documentaries which briefly appeared as extra features on DVD and Blu-ray discs, like them this was released after, rather than before, the main film. It seems likely that streaming may make films like these a thing of the past - at least in this format. Today researchers will typically bring this footage, perhaps just find it on YouTube first. Meanwhile any such visits of key cast or crew are more likely to form pre-publicity than appear afterwards. By today's standards the overall feel of Paolini's film feels like something shot on a phone, but then every so often there is a sublime moment, where the director sees a landscape that inspires him and his artistry shines through. His success with Il vangelo means that, for us too, the lands of the Bible are ever likely to strike us as we expect them to.

    ==========
    Gordon, Robert S. C. (2012) "Pasolini as Jew" in Luca Di Blasi, Manuele Gragnolati, Christoph F. E. Holzhey (eds.) The Scandal of Self-contradiction: Pasolini's Multistable Subjectivities, Geographies, Traditions, Vienna/Berlin: Verlag Turia + Kant. pp.37-54.

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    Monday, December 23, 2019

    The Nativity (1952)
    (aka The Play of the Nativity of the Child Jesus)


    Those who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been running a Nativity Film Advent Calendar but there's one film that I have owned for about a decade yet have only just seen. Marketed as The Nativity and available on DVD via various Mill Creek collections, I'd always thought it was something akin to a Christmas special for the Living Bible series. As it happens though it's nothing of the sort.

    The production is a made for television Christmas special for Westinghouse Studio One that originally aired on CBS on December 22 1952. Both of the copies I have are even accompanied by Westinghouse's adverts for their own products - themselves historical artefacts, not least because for this exceptional production they have chosen to bookend the film with them, thus leaving the main performance unsullied by commercials. It's also interesting though to hear the technical descriptions of problems viewers might be having with their earlier and/or inferior TV sets which could be remediated by them switching to a Westinghouse one.

    Anyway, the production itself is not so much a TV film as the filmed performance of the medieval style mystery play. The opening titles cite the 14th and 15th century mystery plays of York and Chester, even apologising for the use of archaic language. It's unclear who has welded together these plays, whether this is the work of a much older writer, or whether it's simply that a modern screenwriter has selected the both of them. Certainly the fact that the rhyming patterns seem to vary throughout the production suggest some kind of blending of these two traditions.

    The film is shot in black and white and the dialogue is accompanied by the Robert Shaw Chorale performing ancient carols and choral music in a wonderfully evocative fashion. The combination of the archaic dialogue and the music really conjures the atmosphere of the latest iteration of a long running and much cherished tradition. This is enhanced by the high contrast lighting. The shots seem to exist largely in darkness punctuated only by the occasional shafts of light. Silhouetted figures are everywhere. It's no doubt a technique borrowed from film noir - shroud the cheap sets in darkness, and not only do you avoid the impression of cheapness, but you also lend a great deal of atmosphere.

    As ought to be expected the plot plays it fairly straight. Mary hears she is to have God's child and heads to Bethlehem with Joseph. Angels visit the shepherds in the fields. Three kings arrive in Judea from afar and whilst they stop at Herod's palace for directions, Mary has her child. The shepherd's arrive, followed by the kings, before both the latter and Joseph himself hear God tell them of the threat to Jesus's life.

    What's interesting is where the elaboration in the text lies compared to more modern productions. The discussions and inner lives of Mary and Joseph seem of little consequence, but eloquent verses of poetic praise usher forth from the mouths of the magi, yet somehow this does not feel out of place.

    In a year where I've watched numerous Straub-Huillet films and read and thought a great deal about their concerns with multiple layers of history and the rigorous adaptation of poetry/prose this feels strangely fitting. I don't know of a link between Huillet/Straub and this production's director Franklin Shaffner (who would go on to direct Planet of the Apes (1968) and win an Oscar for his direction of Patton to years later, but the slow long-takes, relying on gradual zooms and pans rather than editing feels reminiscent and perhaps goes back to Bresson and beyond. It's a shame the transfer is rather poor, because I suspect a proper restoration, with sharp images accompanied by crisp sound, might really be something.

    Prior to this Shaffner had already completed a drama called Pontius Pilate (1952) for Westinghouse, which usually appears in the same collections as this programme, so I will have to review that one in the run up to Easter. There's nothing in the synopsis on the back of the DVD to suggest it is also based on 15th century texts, but who knows...

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    Sunday, December 22, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Sodom and Gomorrah


    In my review of the previous episode of this series I noted how so many of its instalments tend to shape the narrative into the same essential plot. God's hero is the leader of a small but devoted band of Hebrews who face conflict with the ruling powers of a nearby settlement, whose wicked ways ultimately cause their destruction as God steps in during the final moments.

    If ever a story was set-up to adhere to this formula it was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Yet surprisingly, the screenwriters display a certain reluctance to take the most straightforward approach to their task. Part of this is because they combine the story of Lot's clashes with the townspeople with the other main story about him in Genesis, that of his capture by the four kings led by Kedorlaomer (Gen 14). This version has the king of Sodom factoring into his dealings with Lot the threat from this alliance, and the potential for Abraham to intervene on their behalf. Sadly the king's political machinations start to feel a little bit like those from The Phantom Menace (1999).

    Eventually, however, Sodom is visited by the two angels, and Lot's unease with the morality of the city is revealed to be more than just a hunch. Interestingly, though, any mention of the Sodomites attempting to rape the angels is omitted. The sin of Sodom is - as with the other cities in the series to fall foul of God's judgement - more about extortion, exploitation and slavery than about sex. I'm not quite sure whether this is due to a desire to avoid the homophobia that has blighted several key adaptations of this story, or simply because angel rape was deemed an unsuitable topic for an early evening*, mainstream TV series at to make of this.

    The special effects team attempts to go all out here, but leaves the budget too thinly spread. When the angels step into defend Lot from a rather threadbare mob they repel them using rays emanating from their hands, both unnecessary and ineffective. There's no sight of the burning sulphur raining down on the city from on high, instead we're treated to number of different shots of buildings (models?) crumbling and falling apart, with the occasional fork of lightning. Finally Lot's wife turns to look back and is turned to stone in a slow wipe-dissolve revealing a statue which is less a pillar of salt and more like a tomb in a 15th century church, only not nearly as beautifully rendered. The blame placed on Lot's wife never really plays well in adaptations of this story, but here's it's already been preceded by a scene where Lot clearly considers his wife's attempts to integrate with the locals a step too far, and so comes off even worse. All in all not a great version of this story which is, after all, one of the most frequently covered stories in the Hebrew Bible.

    ========
    *Incidentally, I came across a scathing review of the first clutch of episodes to air in the New York Times archive which includes describing the scripts as "atrocious, veering between the plastic vernacular and the mock portentous" and ends insisting that the names of creators Charles E. Sellier Jr. and James L. Conway "ought not to be lost to the history of schlock".

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    Sunday, December 15, 2019

    First Temptation of Christ (2019)


    Last Christmas Netflix brought us it's first self-produced Bible film - The Last Hangover and it appears to have been enough of a success that they have commissioned (what I suppose must, these days, have to be called) a prequel from the same Brazilian comedy troupe Porta dos Fundos. As with that film, First Temptation is an anything-goes, neo-bawdy comedy which is happy enough to offend anyone who streams it without somehow knowing what to expect. Peter Chattaway describes it as "intentionally blasphemous" noting that he is using the word "descriptively, not pejoratively". In short if you are likely to be offended by this, stay away.

    Those who enjoyed Last Hangover may well find this is an improvement. Whereas Last Hangover felt like a sketch (skit) dragged out for 46 minutes, the structure here is much stronger. Even if the plot goes in a somewhat bizarre direction, it is much more discernible and holds together the jokes and the craziness. It does make it harder to describe, however, without giving away too many spoilers.

    Jesus returns from forty days in the desert to find Mary and Joseph have thrown him a surprise 30th birthday party, but he has brought his own surprise, a friend he has met in the desert. It's one of those set-ups where the pair's romantic attachment is clear to the audience, but goes over the characters' heads. Orlando (played by Fábio Porchat, who played Jesus in the first film) is the epitome of the positive homosexual stereotype. He's the kind of life-and-soul-of-the-party type who the other revellers find eminently likeable and who can enter a room of sheltered types and win them over even before they have realised his sexuality.

    Meanwhile Jesus (this time played by Gregorio Duvivier) is only just discovering his origins for himself. When God turns up unexpectedly for the party ("he said he wasn't coming") there's tension between him and Joseph and the three take Jesus to one side to explain to him his origins. Jesus is confused and disappointed ("I want to specialise in juggling") but things begin to pay off when he realises he can perform miracles. Given the glut of films in recent years showing characters discovering their supernatural powers and then practising, adjusting to and (only eventually) mastering them there is much more comedic potential here than the writers manage to extract. If Spiderman, Harry Potter and various other superhero movies can play these moments for laughs in essentially serious productions then the potential comic seam here seems sadly under-mined.

    Later on Jesus has a vision caused when he drinks Joseph's Glaucoma tea, which spoofs other religious figures though somewhat conveniently Allah has just wandered off for a moment. I imagine some people might get angry at the comparatively more more reverent treatment of Allah, but given the Charlie Hebdo shooting one can hardly blame them.

    It's always difficult to assess the success of comedy in another language. So much humour depends on nuances of language, tone, delivery and referencing that things that are hilarious to a good percentage of people from the original culture may not amuse other audiences at all. For my part, I found the occasional laugh, but couldn't really endorse it on that front. Nevertheless, those who appreciated the original for anything other than it's taboo-breaking chutzpah, will probably enjoy more of the same here. Netflix now have a number of bought-in biblical productions available to stream. It will be interesting to see what will happen if they ever get around to producing a more serious effort of their own.

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    Sunday, December 08, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: The Story of Noah


    In terms of biblical chronology, this is the earliest story, and whilst the series wasn't broadcast in biblical order - the episode covering the Tower of Babel didn't air for another six months, for example - the first part of it did screen on the series' first day (Campbell and Pitts). The episode is presented as a single/joint episode in the complete box set that was released on DVD a couple of years ago.

    The programme starts with a five minute creation sequence, very much in the mould of Huson's The Bible (1966) but with only a fraction of the budget. Then we are introduced to the main story, with a a certain amount of invented subplot to flesh things out a little. Here it takes what would is looking like the standard plot line for the series. God's "hero" is part of a tiny band of the faithful who take on a larger majority who are indifferent, if not openly hostile, to God. When conflict arises God intervenes in dramatic fashion. I've still got a way to work through the series but most of the episodes I have already reviewed follow this pattern. Slavery is a common motif - almost the defining sin of those who oppose God. As usual the invented parts of the plot are spruced up with biblical language even if it is found in completely the wrong context. "You shall surely die" Noah is warned at one point by the city's Karmir (with echoes of Airplane).

    Here Noah is specifically marked out as a proto-John the Baptist - he even describes himself as a voice crying in the wilderness. Noah is played by Lew Ayres, whose career almost spanned back to the silent era, though he is best known for his role for 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front and for being Dr. Kildare in nine movies filmed in the early 1940s. Ayres, a conscientious objector in WWII cuts a far more sympathetic figure than Russell Crowe in Aronofsky's recent Noah (2014). That said, there is one scene from Aronfsky's film that is very similar to one here, where the people of the local settlement, spurred on by their charismatic if self-obsessed patriarch, attack the ark just moments before the rains come.

    Special effects are somewhat mixed. A now familiar drawn-on bolt of lightning accounts for the city's high priest. Likewise God's voice comes from a billowing cloud. Aside from that the use of (presumably) a miniature ark combined well with footage that shows a torrent rushing through trees, and people slipping off rocks into the water. The effects are rather undermined by other shots and sequencing, however. Noah and his family emerge from the ark into the bone-dry, arid deserts of (presumably) Southern California, looking as if it hasn't seen rain for months, rather than having been under water until recently.

    Ayres does a pretty good job in the lead role, even if he is given some rather pungent dialogue at times. The acting of those who oppose him is pretty hammy, but again, that's emerging as a standard feature of the series as a whole.

    ==========
    Campbell, Richard H. and Pitts, Michael R., (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980, Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press.

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    Sunday, December 01, 2019

    Pier Paolo Pasolini: Framed and Unframed


    Pier Paolo Pasolini Framed and Unframed:
    A Thinker for the Twenty-First Century

    Edited by Luca Peretti and Karen T. Raizen

    Bloomsbury (2019)
    273 pages - Hardback
    ISBN 978-101328893

    I will be reviewing this book for the journal "Studies in European Cinema" so I'm currently working my way through it, but there are a few points that might be of interest to readers of this blog that probably fall outside of the scope for the journal, so I thought I would mention them here instead.

    The various essays that comprise the book tackle Pasolini's poetry, novels and public statements as well as his films, so those wanting a more specific focus on Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) and/or religious themes in Pasolini's cinema in general will probably be better getting hold of Naomi Greene's "Pier Paolo Pasolini : Cinema as Heresy" (1990). You can read my comments on that one here.

    There are some interesting mentions of Il vangelo however. Firstly, Ara H. Merjian mentions Pasolini's "legendary desire" to cast the 1950s American 'Beat' poet Jack Kerouac as Jesus (p.38), but this is not something I was cognisant of previously (though I must have come across it at some point). Merjian's chapter deals almost entirely with poetry - it contrasts Pasolini's with the works and experiences of the Beat Generation - so I can imagine it is something that is discussed in those circles quite a bit. The idea is interesting, particularly as Pasolini ultimately went for a neutral unknown actor rather than a "beatnik" whose mere presence may have alienated certain viewers. It's also an interesting example of the concept of "contamination" which I'm increasingly seeing as central to Pasolini's style. (There's a good chapter on the concept - pivotal for the book - by David Forgacs).

    Also interesting is a description of the rather striking cover from Peretti and Raizen's introduction: it's an image by French street artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest "a Pasolinian Pietà in which Pasolini holds a corpse of himself" (p.3). Ernest created numerous versions of this image around Rome some of which were subsequently tagged with graffiti - a symbol, perhaps, of the type of blurring of lines and contamination between high and low art that is typical of Pasolini's work and thinking.

    For those with a strong interest in Pasolini, so far this looks a good addition to a fairly considerable canon. I discussed many of these books and chapters back in May this year, but to summarise: in addition to Green, Pasolini's interviews with Oswald Stack take you direct to the man himself and the book is well worth a read. Meanwhile, "Pasolini Old and New" edited by Zygmunt G. Barański is one of the most cited works of analysis on Pasolini and contains several strong essays.

    This book (i.e. Peretti and Raizen's) is aimed far more at Pasolini's continuing emphasis more than forty years after his death. It's more in depth (obviously) than the chapters in more generic works, and coming from very different place from the other existing single volume works (at least those that I have read), so is probably aimed more at those seeking an in-depth and rounded appreciation of Pasolini rather than simply providing some quick wins for those looking to write about Il vangelo secondo Matteo. I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of it.

    ==================
    Contents
    1. Introduction -  Luca Peretti and Karen T. Raizen
    2. Dirt and Order in Pasolini - David Forgacs

    Space/Otherness/Geography
    3. 'Howls from the Left': Pier Paolo Pasolini, Allen Ginsberg, and the Legacies of Beat America, Ara H. Merjian
    4. Filming Decolonization: Pasolini's Geopolitical Afterlife, Luca Caminati
    5. Voicing the Popular in "Appunti per un' Orestiade Africana", Karen T. Raizen
    6. "La rabbia": Pasolini's Color Ecstasy, Nicola Perugini and Francesco Zucconi
    7. Pier Paolo Pasolini's "La Nebbiosa": Teddy Boys and the Economic Miracle in Milan, Scott Budzynski
    8. The Loss of the Separated World: On Pasolini's Communism, Evan Calder Williams

    Time/Prophecy/Production
    9. Television, Neo-Capitalism, and Modernity: Pasolini on TV, Damiano Garofalo
    10. From Accattone to Profezia: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Productive Failure, Krzysztof Rowinski
    11. Pasolini and the Anthropocene, Karen Pinkus
    12. Pier Paolo Pasolini's Political Animism, Federico Luisetti

    Unframing Pasolini
    13a. Interview with Willem Dafoe: Pasolini embodied, (conducted by Maurizio Braucci)
    13b. Pasolini Undead, Robert S.C. Gordon
    13c. Pasolini Reloaded, Paola Bonifazio

    Bibliography
    List of Contributors

    Index

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