• 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


    Friday, January 17, 2020

    Good Omens (2019)
    Episode 1:In the Beginning

    There's a surprising amount of biblically themed television on at the moment. Before Christmas Netflix released the one off First Temptation of Christ and they followed it up on New Year's Day with their modern-day series Messiah. The end of 2019 also saw the crowd funded app-release of The Chosen (read more at FilmChat) and now, just two weeks into 2020 and the BBC has broadcast the first episode of Good Omens a quaint comedy drama about the anti-Christ.

    It's usually clear how seriously the BBC is taking a production by the quality of the cast. Here Good Omens stars Neil Tennant and Michael Sheen suggesting this is a fairly high priority in their New Year's schedule. Tennant and Sheen play Crowley and Aziraphale (ever destined to be called "the other one" in our house) an angel and a demon who have been watching the fate of humanity since the Garden of Eden.

    The first episode starts with an introductory monologue delivered very much in the style of the original The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only it soon emerges the narrator (Frances McDormand, more acting nous) is actually God. Then we're transported to the Garden of Eden, a small green enclave set in the wilderness (see here) where a snake emerges to tempt Eve, who passes the apple to Adam and moments later the two are stepping out into the wilderness.

    Adam and Eve scenes are hardly novel (see my list) but this brief segment is interesting for three reasons. Firstly, because Adam and Eve are both played by actors with African heritage, which will please all those who favour a relatively close alliance between Genesis and current scientific theory, (particularly the theory that Mitochondrial Eve was from Africa). Secondly, because the serpent here is very reminiscent of that in Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014), particularly because of the way the camera is more concerned with the snake than either of the humans. And then lastly because Eve and Adam leave Eden with the flaming sword. Wait a minute, what?

    The shot cuts to a now-flaming swordless Aziraphale (Sheen) standing on top of the walls of Eden. As he scans the horizon, he's joined by the snake who quickly transforms into the almost human form of Crowley (Tennant). The two get to chatting and it gradually turns out that they are both somewhat ambivalent about their commander's orders and concerned they might have already messed up their special roles. And it's this humanising of the supernatural beings which is the heart of the series. Sheen admits he gave away the flaming sword out of concern for Adam and Eve's welfare. Tennant that banishing them from the Garden was "a bit of an overreaction". "I can't see what's so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil anyway". Sheen worries he did the wrong thing, to which Tennant shares his own concern that he may have done the wrong thing.

    [Ep.1 Spoilers] The two strike up an unlikely friendship, such that when the show fast forwards to just before the present day, they are still friends. The Anti-Christ is about to be born to the wife of a privileged White-House chief of staff. There's a mix-up at the hospital and the baby somehow goes home with the wrong couple. Meanwhile Crowley suggests to Aziraphale that Armageddon is good for neither of them and the two hatch a plan to work together incognito. Crowley's bad influence will be counteracted by Aziraphale's good influence - both will be able to claim they are acting in their employers best interests. Crowley by doing his job, Aziraphale by making the anti-Christ less evil.[End Spoilers] By the end of the episode we are up to the present day, though the period details are deliberately mixed up, presumably to give things a more universal flavour (time-wise at least, the series is stereotypically British)

    It's an interesting premise, with more than a few nods to Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore's Bedazzled (1967). There is some great writing made all the better by Tennant and Sheen's delivery. Part 2 of the six part series goes out next Wednesday at 9pm.

    Edit: I should also point out that this series first aired on Amazon Prime in Spring 2019, but as I don't subscribe to that service it had passed me by. The finer details of its release also passed-by a group of Christian campaigners called Return to Order who got 20,000 signatures on a petition to Netflix to cancel to show only to discover when Netflix duly obliged that it was only available on Amazon Prime...

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    Thursday, January 16, 2020

    Messiah (2020): Episodes 4-5

    If the biblical allusions of Messiah episodes two and three were somewhat muted, then the fourth episode is much more upfront. "The Trial" riffs heavily on the discussions between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, most notably from John's Gospel.

    For some the image of a (potential) Christ-figure clad in a state-issued orange jumpsuit, with all the evocations of Guantanamo Bay may be relatively shocking, though it's an association others have made before. In 2006 Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman brought his show "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" to the Edinburgh fringe where it proved such a success that twelve months later it was playing in London's West End and Off Broadway in Boston. Biblical scholars may also be aware of Gwyneth Leech's "Station X: Jesus is Stripped of his Garments" which adorns James Crossley's book "Jesus in an Age of Terror".

    While I get the impression that this will not be the last time that Al-Masih finds himself in front of the authorities, the script itself firmly points towards the connection with the trials before Pilate when Al-Masih's interrogator, CIA agent Eva Geller. When Al-Masih mentions truth, she fires back "Truth? We'll come to the truth" - not a precise use of John 18:38's "Truth, what is truth", but both structure and delivery point firmly in that direction.

    Within the confines of the programme's story, the scene with Eva is only an interview, but this episode also contains an actual trial in front of a judge who (we find out later) knows he is dying. The presidency tries to pressure him into refusing Al-Masih's asylum so instead he grants it. It is unclear whether this is simply because he wishes to resist the tyranny of the President trying to force the hand of the supposedly independent judiciary, or whether it's because he buys Al-Masih's speech about the arbitrary nature of faith, fate and nationhood, but having already delivered a speech in a similar vein to Eva, Al-Masih is clearly going to be making such speeches on a regular basis.

    Al-Masih's release is a great relief to church leader Felix who has been paying for his lawyer. Having been on the verge of torching his own church due to a lack of faith Al-Masih's appearance in the eye of the storm has restored it. Meanwhile, in Texas, crowds are flocking to Dilley the site of this miracle.

    Episode 5 picks up the story of Jibril, following his interrogation by Mossad agent Avrim in episode 3. The two were largely restricted to brief wordless scenes in episode 4: a battered Jibril stumbling through the desert; Avrim drinking and stumbling around being drunk. The Mossad man's superiors managed to catch up with him long enough to suspend him for deleting the footage of his interview with Al-Masih. Towards the start of Episode 5 it emerges Avrim has gone missing only for him to turn up later on buying guns in Texas and heading towards Dilley. Jibril meanwhile finds himself amongst Al Masih's followers on the Israeli border, only they are starting to divide as some lose faith.

    The episode's title is "So that seeing they may not see" - Jesus' explanation in Luke 8:10 of why he speaks in parables - his followers can understand, while those who don't believe won't understand even though they see the same things. And so the pilgrims flock to Dilley, multiply, and a tented community sets up home. Even Al Masih himself has a (private) tent there. But just when it appears that another miracle is due to round off the episode we get the opposite. When Al Masih is called in the hope he will heal a wounded and traumatised dog, he takes Avrim's gun and puts it out of its misery. This is the second indication this episode that this production is not to be a straight Christ figure narrative: at the start of the episode it emerged that Al Masih's court speech in "The Trial" was stolen from a stock exchange hacker. It will be interesting to see where things go from here in episode 6.


    Sunday, January 12, 2020

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Abraham's Sacrifice

    It's clear that the stories of Abraham posed a bit of a problem for the makers of "The Greatest Heroes of the Bible" series. On the one hand he is clearly one of the most pivotal characters in the entire Bible and yet they delayed telling his story until season two, and only gave him a single episode, in contrast to Moses and Daniel who got two each (though he did also feature as a minor part in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode).

    Any outward suspicion about this is only confirmed by actually watching it. The narratives about Abraham lack the big screen potential of, say, the Samson cycle, but there is a good deal of material there: the promise of children; his fathering Ishmael; the two texts about him attempting to pass Sarah off as his sister while in foreign lands;the death of Sarah; and, of course, his aborted sacrifice of Isaac. Whilst no filmmaker has really succeeded in making stand-out adaptation of the material, there is at least enough material to fill a 49-minute TV episode. The Bible Collection managed to spin it out to three hours.

    In this case, however, the filmmakers decided otherwise. The incidents with Pharaoh and Abimelech are omitted and instead a fictional conflict with an invented people-group is inserted instead. Early on Abraham accidentally kills the other son of the city people's ruler and the rest of the episode revolves around him seeking revenge, with some assistance from Hagar's uncle. This extra-biblical material takes up the vast majority of the run-time, to the extent that the dramatic moment with a knife on Mount Moriah is given just a couple of minutes. Furthermore, whereas most episodes in this series end with the spectacle of a biblical miracle, here God's moment of judgement is the fictional conclusion of this invented story.(1)

    Of course, it is possible that this additional plot has some sort of basis in some ancient tradition or script with which I am unfamiliar and, even if  not, dramatic licence is not in itself inherently problematic. In this context, however, it seems both unlikely and somewhat out of keeping with a series attempting to provide a relatively conservative affirmation of the Bible's main narratives.

    As is typical of the series as a whole,where the biblical material is used, it tends to be amended to try and place the hero in the best possible light. Abraham is problematic in this situation. The most-well known story (the testing his faith to see if he would kill his son) is almost impossible for modern audiences to relate to, at least as described in the texts, and the tale of him impregnating his slave girl only to send her and her child into the desert with just a bit of bread, some water and some divine well-wishing is not much better. Sarah takes the brunt of blame for the latter here.

    With the former, Abraham remains spatially distant from Isaac the entire time they are on the mountain, until God reveals it was just a test. At the moment Abraham unsheathes his knife he places his own body between him and his son at first, and as soon as he turns round God steps in to give him the all clear. It feels like a significantly more palatable version of the story and certainly not one which will make many think about the text in a more significant manner. Next time around the series picks up with Isaac's son in Jacob's Challenge.

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    Sunday, January 05, 2020

    Messiah (2020): Episodes 1-3

    It's difficult to know what to make of Messiah, Netflix's new political / religious thriller. The only senior off-camera names with which I'm familiar with is executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who were responsible for many of the larger screen Bible productions of the last decade. The three main writers, including series creator Michael Petroni only have a handful of titles to their names (though Petroni did co-write the screen play for 2010's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), yet the two directors James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and Kate Woods are much more experienced.

    The story itself begins in Syria, where an unprecedented forty-day storm defeats an ISIS/Daesh siege of Damascus and claiming credit for this "miracle" is a charismatic preacher called Al-Masih (Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi). The name is perhaps typical of the series itself. For a start, despite the biblical overtones this is also a story centred around the Islamic world. In addition to geographical locations, characters speak Arabic and dress in a way that most westerners would identify as Muslim, even if they are the same clothes that the many Christians in the region would also wear. Then of course there's also a heavy Jewish and/or Israeli angle to the story of as well, notably scenes set in Jerusalem and its environs and passing mention of "the word". Add in the occasional shot of Al-Masih sitting in the lotus position and its clear the production is going to draw on a wide range of religious influences.

    It's not long before Al-Masih has claimed to be the prophet Isa returned and is acknowledged as such by a group of 2000 people who follow him into the desert ("He is Isa returned, the Messiah"), but this is where the story begins to diversify. Al-Masih's actions raise a red flag for the CIA in particular Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan) who begins to investigate the various goings on.

    Clearly names here have much significance. In particular the use of 'Al-Masih' caused various controversies even before the series began to air. Al-Masih is the Arabic name for the Messiah, but it also has resonances of another character from Islamic tradition, Al-Masih ad Dajjal. Dajjal is a false messiah/evil prophet figure mentioned in the Haddith, about whom Muhammed is claimed to have warned his followers.(1) It is said, he will come to earth and try to lure people into following Shaytan (Satan).Whilst he is largely unknown in white western Christian circles, to many people across the world (and you have to remember Netflix attracts a world-wide audience) Dajjal's name is as common as the word "antichrist".

    Various things happened as a result of this. Netflix was criticised for crassly using a supposedly mysterious name which, for millions, was anything but. For some it was white bias, for others merely just a dumb spoiler, along similar lines as calling a character "Murder McMurderson" (@frankoceanhafiz). There were claims that Twitter accounts pointing this out were blocked, which Netflix strenuously denied. This lead to various Islamic voices, such as the Connotasians podcast, calling for people to educate themselves about the true story of Dajjal and wrestling with the issues of whether this was an opportunity or a threat. Then on Monday, two days before the series was due to be released, The Royal Film Commission of Jordan called on Netflix not to stream the programme in their country, despite some of the footage having been filmed there.

    All of this hinges on the understanding that the names Al-Masih and Al-Masih ad Dajjal are more or less the same, and I'm not convinced they are. More to the point, my understanding of how the series progresses is that this is one of the issues that has not been resolved by the end of the series (2). There's more on this in an article released ahead of the series on the BBC website.

    Other significant names are also apparent, Eva Geller has an obvious connotation of 'Eve', original sin and the mother of humanity, but Geller makes me think of Uri (rather than Ross and Monica) a real life character claiming supernatural powers and a wide (if shallow) exposure. Perhaps I'm reasing too much in. Then of course there's the use of the place name Megiddo, from which we get the word Armageddon.

    So far the series seems subtle and rather slow-paced. This is not necessarily a criticism, indeed given Burnett and Downey's completely over-the-top version of The Bible in 2003 this is a nice surprise. Indeed their trajectory is quite positive. A Jesus film, Son of God (2014, scroll here for brief comments) emerged from The Bible, which wasn't quite as bad and then the sequel A.D. The Bible Continues (2015) got better and better as the series went on. In 2016 they remade Ben-Hur and while the wider, more critical, range of critics that opened them up to were largely critical (including me) it was progress for them. So whilst I'm hesitant to read too much into this on the basis of three episodes, I'm encouraged by the fact that so far the sound isn't hugely distracting and that not every moment of biblical resonance is accompanied by the cinematic equivalent of a giant pointy sign.

    Episode 1 also introduces us to Jibril (the name is an Arabic variation on 'Gabriel') who is to become, at least from the audience's point of view, one of Isa's most prominent followers. There are the scenes of Al-Masih and his followers in the desert which have a particularly strong Jesus vibe, along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount.

    We also learn more about Eva, which only enhances the show's strong Homeland-vibe, she appears to have some mental health issues, including insomnia. Eva is given permission to track Al-Masih and catches up with him approaching the Syrian border with Israel. As Al-Masih crosses the border he is arrested and we're introduced to a further character Avrim, an Israeli agent. His initial interrogation of Al-Masih is turned on its head when Al-Masih begins to probe him about an incident in Mediggo which Avrim thought no-one aside from his friend knew about. When he returns to Al-Masih's cell later, he is gone.

    The story doesn't develop too greatly over the next two episodes. We're introduced to new characters in a new location - Texas, where a family including a preacher father (Felix) and a mysteriously ill girl (Rebecca). Meanwhile Al-Masih turns up at the Temple Mount, there's a scuffle in which a boy is shot, and then Al-Masih miraculously heals him. There's another storm and another miracle in Texas where Al-Masih appears in the eye of the storm, which spreads rapidly. Felix talks to Al-Masih and starts to believe. Avrim arrests Jibril and tortures him.(3)

    I tend to have a bit of a problem writing about modernised takes on biblical stories when they are released on (long-form) television rather than as feature length movies. Part of the problem is that there's too much material and it's difficult to know at the start how strongly the biblically themed material will sustain for. Will it be consist throughout the show, or is it just in the first episode and a half? What happens if it goes dormant for a while only to burst out much further down the line? All of this was a problem with Kings (2009) which is why I still haven't written much by way of my own reflections on it here, in a way that wasn't a problem with A.D. Kingdom and Empire. I knew that there would be enough material to sustain one post an episode. Here, however, I'm unsure, (plus I've been delayed by other projects) so I've decided to tackle a few episodes at a time and see where that gets me. The last two episodes suggest a similar trajectory to Kings but I guess we'll all find out soon enough.
    1 - See Ain-Al Hayat, The Essence of Life by Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, notably chapter 5.
    2 - There are spoilers at this site, but you can learn a few non-spoilery things if you carefully don't look too closely.
    3 - I'm grateful to Ready Steady Cut for their plot summaries. You might appreciate them too.