• 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 27, 2020

    The Brand New Testament (2015)

    "God exists. He lives in Brussels. He's a bastard. Horrid to his wife and daughter. We've heard a lot about his son, but little about his daughter." 
    So begins Jaco Van Dormael's The Brand New Testament (2016) an off-beat Belgian comedy that sets the Almighty on a collision course with his only...daughter. Deciding she has had enough of the way her father runs the universe, and egged on by her brother 'JC' (who appears only as a living statue), Ea begins a to try and counteract his tyranny. Firstly she texts everyone the date of their deaths. Then, having managed to escape from the Brussels flat where they all live she asks a gentleman of the street to help her add six new disciples to JC's original twelve, because of her mother's love of baseball and it's teams of eighteen.

    The majority of the film, then, features the testimony of each of these disciples as they talk about their lives  - a brand new testament. There's an unmarried data manager; a beautiful twenty-something with a false arm; a gunman with an obsession with death; a lonely sex-addict; a teenage boy who wants to be a girl; and a lonely housewife played by Catherine Deneuve. Given she is by far the biggest star associated with the film Deneuve's casting is particularly interesting. We're told her character has an incredible depth of feeling in her heart, but she plays the icy blond just as she so often has before. Van Dormael shoots her in pale grey against white backgrounds. Whilst she is perhaps best remembered for her role as a fantasising housewife-turned-prostitute in Buñuel's Belle du Jour (1967), here she hires a young male prostitute, before ultimately settling down with a Gorilla. Buñuel would have loved that, I suspect.

    Other characters also fall in love. God's daughter may not have inherited her father's temperament, but she is certainly capable of working in mysterious ways. The sex addict is miraculously reunited with his childhood crush; the data manager falls for a woman living in the Arctic Circle; the trans teen forms a deep bond with Ea herself. Most strikingly of all, the gunman realises his obsession is not death, but fate. The unfailingly accuracy of Ea's texts inspires him to shoot randomly, knowing he can chalk any resulting deaths down to fate, rather than personal responsibility. When his first shot hits the twenty-something's prosthetic arm the two end up falling hopelessly in love.

    Indeed it's the question of fate that's the main theme here, rather than morality. As the opening narration suggests God does not come out of things very well - a petty, vindictive and abusive bureaucrat who fails to find redemption. But while he and his misanthropic rules provide a few smirks, that side of the story always feels a little like a comedy sketch given too much latitude. Whilst the film has so much empathy for its characters from the margins of society (typified by Van Dormael's characteristic concern for those with disabilities), it has seemingly no compassion for the lonely self-hating deity at it's heart. Van Dormael's God is a "slob like one of us" but without the relatability inherent in Joan Osborne's song.

    Visually Van Dormael's work is perhaps a little less controversial than his theology it also has its idiosyncrasies. It has the look of films like Amélie (2001) though Sight and Sound's Leigh Singer claims Van Dormael did such "whimsical fable"first. The darker moments and accompanying cinematography are also reminiscent of Delicatessen (1991). There's a focus on Christian art that is not only present though the many religious paintings which appear during the film, but also in the frequent use of the kind of tenebristic lighting most of us associate with Caravaggio. Yet this contrasts with other brighter, greyer or geometrically precise scenes elsewhere. Van Dormael contrasts God's oppressively dark and gloomy flat with the liberating breeze and warm light of the outdoors. Similarly the use of religious music throughout adds to this mishmash of the sacred and profane, not least in the song-avatars that Ea discerns for each of her disciples. 

    There are also numerous little quirky visual touches to the film which add to its humour as well as minor, unrelated story lines to keep things ticking over. Realising he will not die for many years a vlogger starts throwing himself from ever higher platforms for the thrill and media attention. Moments such as these not only offset the blackness of the film's darker moments but also conceal further questions about fate and morality. The first time the vlogger's jumps his fall is broken by one less unfortunate than himself, yet he carries on, even as he accumulates several serious injuries. It's no coincidence that the role that Van Dormael gives to himself is as "l'automobiliste qui n'a plus que 0 seconde à vivre" (the motorist who has only 0 seconds to live) who is distracted while driving by the very text message announcing his death.

    Ultimately though the characters find their personal 'salvation' through love and self determination. The film leans heavily into the idea of the Gospels as accounts about personal connection, though there is also an emphasis on the importance of a faith community, growing together.  

    However, sadly the film ducks the more profound questions about fate and determinism and aside from the difference Ea makes to the lives of her chosen six, her work on Earth is arguably not much greater than her father's. He meddles by inventing irksome rules about bread always falling jam side down, or about the other queue always moving fastest; she tweaks the lives of only a handful of followers, to bring them happiness. She's 10 of course, but the film suggests she is done meddling with the world, and that we will be better without her or her father's interference. 

    Perhaps the difference is that Ea seems like one of us. Whereas her father exists in the dark, tucked a way in a huge room with wall to wall filing cabinet, she lives like one of us. Her message, perhaps, is that we can all have a small impact on the lives around us. As endings go, it's nice enough and the time spent getting there was entertaining enough with a few moments of interest. Somehow, however, I had just hoped for a little bit more. 
    The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament) is available to stream via the Channel 4 website (in the UK at least) until the 16th July. 


    Saturday, June 20, 2020

    Samson dan Delilah (1987)

    Bible films are acts of adaptation and invention. Sometimes filmmakers try and stick as closely as they can to the original text. Sometimes they are happy to strip away all but but a story's essential points in the service of exploration or entertainment. Samson dan Delilah, by Indonesian director Sisworo Gautama Putra, is a film which very much falls into the latter category.

    The success of the Italian film Hercules (1958) led to a string of peplum films being made which traded on the names of a mythical strong men. Hercules, Goliath, Odysseus and Samson all ended up appearing in films which borrowed their names, but very little else from their original stories. Indeed there were several occasions when films bore Hercules' name when released in Italy, were re-titled and repackaged as films about Samson when they were re-dubbed and re-released further afield.

    Putra's film is doubtless influenced by pepla such as Samson and the Sea Beast (1963) or Samson and the Pirate (1964). Indeed, just as Hercules cast an American bodybuilder as the mythical strongman (Steve Reeves), so too Samson is played by Paul Hay, an Australian whose muscular credentials are laid out, somewhat oddly, during the opening credits. As with those films, the hero battles fantastical foes such a very unconvincing Cyclops - whose pointed shield grinds against Samson's naked torso without a scratch. Shortly afterwards Samson steals another attacker's sword/axe and slices him in two from top to bottom, only to see the two halves reform, like something from Terminator 2 (1991), and for him to redouble his efforts. Even when, moments later, Samson slices clean through his waist, his attackers legs continue to kick him. The cartoon gore, which is not in short supply, is a hangover from Putra's better known work in horror.

    The film's most obvious innovation is the introduction of several elements of the kung-fu/martial arts film. The choreographed fights, the exaggerated foley work and poor dubbing are strongly reminiscent of the late seventies 'shenmo' TV series Monkey or the films produced by the Shaw brothers. The fight scenes in Samson are not particularly well executed but they are entertaining nevertheless, though perhaps because of their sheer over-the-topness, rather than in spite of it. 

    Yet in contrast to the pepla, Putra's film sticks more closely to the biblical material. Samson's affair with Delilah (played by Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna), her betrayal of him and his subsequent blinding and enslavement are all included. Also like the account in Judges Samson regains a little of his former super-strength, although bizarrely the film also has him regain his site after a woman rubs her breasts in his face, and finishes by him destroying his captors' temple destroing both himself and his enemies.

    There are other similarities too. The key to Samson's strength still lies in his uncut hair.  He exists in a world where he belongs to an invaded and oppressed people. Like the biblical character, his motive is as much about revenge as fighting injustice, indeed the film's title for its release in France was La Revanche de Samson (The Revenge of Samson). Adaptations of his story often overlook this thirst for revenge. Yet in one scene Samson is prepared to give himself up, as per Judges 15:9-17 in order to stop the ruling regime's soldiers attacking the villagers (only for him to escape again later). 

    However, arguably the most interesting deviation from the biblical text is the time and place where the story is situated. Instead of Israel around 1000 B.C. the film relocates the story to colonial Indonesia in the early 1800s. The soldiers who plot to destroy Samson are white Europeans wearing tall hats and smart, full length, powder-blue coats as if picked from a Quality Street tin or a Jane Austen novel (1). While in this case they are Dutch, they stand for the dark, still glossed-over era of European history - our brutal invasion, colonisation, repression and rule of countries across the world. Putra and those from former European colonies doubtless experience this film from white Europeans like myself - a painful reminder of a shameful era in our history that refuses to provide an easy way out.

    It's perhaps these elements that mean whilst hardly a work of great artistry, Samson dan Delilah is worth viewing. The action sequences and a food-inspired love scene between the two leads make for a trashy, rather than profound, adaptation of the biblical stories, albeit one that has it's own oddly entertaining appeal. Yet at times it manages to rise above all that to remind us that while Samson stood on the side of the oppressed often those claiming to be on the side of his god, have not.

    There are some other reviews, plot outlines and screen grabs of this film at Ninja Dixon, Backyard Asia, Ballistic Bullets and DevilDead.

    *Quality Street are a UK brand of chocolates who for for about 80 years have sold their products in decorated tins such as these.


    Sunday, June 14, 2020

    Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

    After all the campaigns and protests about Life of Brian (1979), Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jerry Springer: The Opera (2005) it turns out the most sacrilegious Jesus film of all time is not one made by sceptics in search of a quick buck, but by conservative Christians. Assassin 33 A.D. is a piece of well-intended Christertainment so jaw droppingly wrong-headed, it's a miracle no-one stepped in to stop it. Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. After all, how many movies can there be which have the sheer audacity to send terrorists back in time to assassinate Jesus?

    The "Christian movie" elements of the film are most pronounced at the start. Brandt (Donnny Boaz) and his wife (played by reality TV star Heidi Montag) are in the process of relocating so he can start a new job when a juggernaut ploughs into their car. Montag and the couple's children all die,but Brandt somehow survives. Shortly afterwards we see Brandt, channelling as much Scarlet O'Hara as he can muster, growling "I am not your guy anymore" towards the sky, but somehow you get the sense his mustering is only going to last for the next 90 minutes or so.

    The next scene cuts to two new characters in  a university lecture hall - an increasingly popular location for Christian movies. Here, though, the location is more about flirting than creating of flimsy straw men, (c.f. God's Not Dead) notably between socially-awkward-though-not-in-a-loveable-way Ram Goldstein (Morgan Roberts) and fellow scientist Amy Lee (Isla Levine). The two are competing in a test, run as part of the assessment process for a highly paid tech job, which it turns out is the same mysterious company that Brandt has started working for as Head of Security. Despite Ram's awkwardness, and his outspoken scepticism about Amy's beliefs, the two somehow get together and, having both passed the test, they end up working together on a project to create a matter transfer device. Three months later and not only have the team all but completed the teleporting machine, but Ram also realises that a few extra lines of code mean it can also double as a time machine.

    Such a discovery is immensely pleasing to the couple's secretive employers who turn out to be Islamic terrorists. On discovering Ram's new invention their boss Ahmed decides the best way to use it is to go back in time to "eliminate Jesus before the resurrection", thus "effectively dismantling Christianity" and "correcting the greatest deception of all time". No-one asks how putting a bullet in the saviour's brain will prevent rumours about Jesus' resurrection spreading any more than when he was crucified by the Romans, so Brandt and his team are dispatched to Gethsemane with machine guns and body armour.

    What follows is a complex mess of tangled timelines, alternative realities, eccentric theology and convenient plot devices. Assassin 33 A.D.'s unusual combination of genres (sci-fi and biblical epic) mean that it's uniquely able to manoeuvre out of any narratorial tight spots with recourse to either pseudo-scientific babble ("time doesn't change instantaneously, it has to re-write itself") or theological clichés ("God works in mysterious ways" is actually uttered at one point). The scientists and Brandt's SWAT team jump back and forth between both the ancient and recent past resulting in several different Jesus timelines. 

    Aside from this offering a novel solution to the synoptic problem, Jesus eventually reveals that these events are all part of God's plan. Freshly resurrected, he appears to Amy in the garden and tells her the Parable of the Lost Sheep where the shepherd is happy to risk ninety-nine sheep in order to save the hundredth. The choice of this one parable combined with the odd timing - given he is also meant to be meeting Mary Magdalene at any minute - seems to suggest this is meant to be the whole message of the film. Brandt is the missing sheep and all the time travel, plotting and redundant timelines just turns out to be God's unnecessarily over-complicated plan to shepherd Brandt back into the fold. 

    Unfortunately, the problems with the film go further than simply its theology or implausibility. Despite the filmmakers seemingly wanting to do the right thing in terms of ethnicity, racial prejudice crops up repeatedly. The science team may tick the right boxes diversity-wise - Simon, an African American; Felix, a Latino; Amy, a white Christian; and, in Ram, a Jewish atheist - yet their portrayals lapse all too easily into racial stereotypes. Despite being a top scientist, Simon is portrayed as being lazy and goes round telling his colleagues to "chill out" and "be cool". Ram is overly proud. Felix corresponds to the Hispanic stereotypes Berg has classified under "The Male Buffoon" ("simple-mindedness", "failure to master standard English" and "childish regression into emotionality") typified by his bizarre cuddling of a toy penguin even in a science lab (184).

    Then, of course, there is problematic portrayal of the Muslims in the film all of whom are Islamic terrorists. Again it feels like the filmmakers do try to circumnavigate the potential problems. One of the terrorists does question their mission. Jesus is Islam's second most holy prophet, shouldn't he be respected? Likewise, later Felix asks why Muslims would act this way, leading Ram to explain that "they wouldn't, but Ahmed's part of an extremist group". Nevertheless, these instances do little to balance out the uneasy way Ahmed, "the world's most famous refugee", is leading a bunch of homegrown terrorists in acts of 'Jihad'.  Of course, "Islamic terrorism" has been a staple feature of Hollywood dramas for a quarter of a century, so it perhaps seems a little churlish to object now, but there's something particularly uncomfortable about the way things are portrayed here, perhaps because of the film's strong Christian affinities. 

    In many ways the filmmakers' uneven handling of ethnicity typifies the film's uneven contradictions. From a theological angle Laura Robinson describes is as being "both thoroughly sincere in its obvious love for Jesus, and also the most blasphemous thing ever made by filmmakers". Moments such as the one where Simon and Jesus are discussing The Passion of the Christ and trade lines from The Terminator (1984) jar with heavy themes such as terrorism, salvation and determinism. Minor players in the Gospels have their places filled by time travellers. Occasionally an interesting idea crops up, but somehow each and every one is fumbled. At times I found myself mulling over how a particular problem might have been solved by cutting a line here or a scene there, only to be struck, once again, by the sheer abundance of its problems. Worse still, even were they all to be fixed, doing so would only strip the film of its vagarious charm.

    The result of all this is a movie that feels destined to be a cult classic. It's a film so bad, it shoots right past 'good' without drawing so much as a breath. In many ways, it's truly something which could only be conceived in Trump's America, with a theology so muddled it has God go extraordinary lengths to reverse a crisis of faith, rather than prevent a simple accident. It's "faith-based" story finds its greatest threat in a naturalised citizen who arrived escaping terrorism as a child, and features a white man in riot police gear shooting a peaceful, unarmed, Middle-Eastern, protester in the head at point-blank range. It thinks diversity is important, but can only conceive of others via racial stereotypes.Having toured the festival circuit for years seeking a big distributor it was eventually released in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Somehow, that could not be more fitting.

    If you'd like to read more about this film I recommend the various threads about it on Twitter from the NT Review Pod's Laura Robinson, Jeremy Thomas parts one and two and Nathaniel Ralstin (@Hoosier 2012). Robinson also discusses it in episode 91 of the NT Pod.
    Berg, Charles Ramírez (2011) "Hispanic Stereotyping" in Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic (eds.) The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader, Second Edition. New York: New York University Press.p.183-188

    - For a time this film was known as Resurrection Time Conspiracy and Black Easter Resurrection.

    Saturday, June 06, 2020

    Nollywood Jesus: Our Jesus Story (2020)

    The Nigerian film industry, often dubbed Nollywood, is one of the largest in the world. Reliable statistics are not that easy to come by, but UNESCO claim that in 2009 it produced more films than any other nation on Earth except India and it's been claimed that, in 2013 at least, the Nigerian industry is/was third in terms of revenue behind India and the US, largely off the back of strong home video sales. So given that around 45% of the country's 191 million people are Christian, I've long wanted to do a little digging to find out about any biblically themed Nigerian films.

    As, it turns out I didn't need to search very long or very hard. There are a number of titles, which I'll investigate more closely in future posts, but among them is a film which premiered in March this year. Our Jesus Story has been produced by Ojiofor Ezeanyanche's O.J. Production and was directed by Tchidi Chikere. Chikere has over 100 films to his credit (though IMDb does not yet list a lot of them, including Our Jesus Story).

    There's a trailer up on YouTube, from which it looks like the film mixes ancient and modern imagery - the trailer's opening scenes feature men dropping from trees and firing rifles, but in other places the costumes more closely resemble first century Judea. Precious 'Mamazeus' Nwogu reads the trailer as establishing "a plot twist of ritual killings and a story of a Christian missionary trying to fight the system". 

    Four, things stand out to me from the trailer. Firstly, that aspects of Nigerian culture will be in the foreground, which will make for fascinating, and hopefully challenging, viewing. That ties in a little to the second point, namely that the supernatural looks to be a prominent element of the film. We're shown Lazarus raising and at least two instances of lightning/electricity type effects. Thirdly, given the masses of footage circulating on social media in the last week of authority figures violently assailing, unarmed black men, the footage of Jesus screaming in agony as he is beaten and crucified feels particularly visceral.

    Finally, the start of the trailer features a number of Jesus' quotes about relational division. Jesus tells the women of Jerusalem to "weep for your daughters" and this is followed up by the quote "I've not come to bring peace but the sword". This is followed by a moment from one of the subplots where a man acknowledges his father, and the father replies "So you have come back here to challenge me".

    There's also a news report from the Première on March 26th including an interview with Frederick Leonard who plays Jesus. Perhaps the most interesting part of it is when he recalls being asked what he found most challenging about the role and he replies that it was "the fact that he's very soft-spoken, very meek, yet very authoritative, very strong, very stern, and very direct. So how do you portray all of those emotions without coming off as brash? It took a lot of work." From the snippets of Leonard's work in the trailer it looks like a really good portrayal.

    I'm hoping to be able to review this film, but as Nigeria went into lockdown just a few days after the première I imagine the film has not yet even had a proper release.

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    Thursday, June 04, 2020

    Antigone (1992)
    Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948

    Antigone is Huillet and Straub's final film set in the ancient world. Indeed, not only is that when the story is set, but the entire film is shot within the ancient Greek theatre in Segesta, Sicily. The location instantly recalls 1975's Moses und Aron, the majority of which is shot in the Alba Fucens amphitheatre in southern Italy. Antigone is Straub and Huillet's most visually similar film to Moses und Aron. In addition to the ancient white bleachers and stones, the distant mountains in the background, and the light from blue Italian skies, there is the use of the fixed camera - a technique that was used for significant chunks of the earlier film, but for the entirety of Antigone. While the camera is sometimes positioned high up, and a variety of focal lengths and compositions are used, all the scenes are shot from the one position. I'm tempted to call it stage right because while the action (such as it is) takes place on either side of the camera, a row of large stones runs down the middle of the theatre. Behind those stones there are really only a group of four elders. Occasionally a character crosses the line of stones, but otherwise the elders stand there almost motionlessly in front of the ancient bleachers, the empty stands suggesting both the remoteness of the king, Creon, and the elders' role as representatives of the absent people.

    Part of the reason the people are absent is that the men are at war with Argos. As king of Thebes, Creon is not at the battle and is detached from his people - unable to empathise with their suffering, read the mood of his troops, or sense the way the battle is going. "He orders victory before victory is assured and turns weapons against his own troops to drive them into hopeless battle" (Byg, 220). When Princess Antigone's brother (Polyneices) deserts, Creon orders him to be killed. Antigone resists his tyranny to the point that she is also sentenced to death. Creon presses on with the assault on Argos, but his campaign is struck by a series of calamities as the battle is lost; his sons die; and then the men, women and children of Argos instead turn, attack and indeed conquer Thebes.

    In addition to the location, the camera work and the static group of elders, there are several other links with Moses und Aron, though mainly those typical of Huillet and Straub's distinctive style. Shots are largely long takes which are largely static, but occasionally the camera pans well over 90°, almost whizzing by. Both films are adaptations of mid-20th century German works, themselves based on iterations of ancient sources. The film's full title in this respect, which translates as "Antigone of Sophocles After Hölderlin's Adaptation for the Stage Edited by Brecht in 1948" particularly draws attention to the literary stages of development the story we are witnessing has gone through - an event in the past recounted in its time and then adapted again and again by Sophocles, Hölderlin, Brecht and nowStraub/Huillet, each who bring their own themes to it.

    In  both works themes of truth and its inaccessibility are to the fore - Moses senses it but finds it impossible to transmit without distorting it; distortion of truth takes place in Antigone also as Creon prefers to believe a lie rather than listen to, or witness the truth. In both, Moses/Creon's acts of violence take place off-screen, as if merely the inevitable conclusion of the exchange of words we witness.

    A further similarity is the manner in which most of the actors deliver their lines with relatively little expression, though Werner Rehm's performance as Creon stands out in marked contrast. Byg praises his nuanced performance as "a picturebook version of a hammy, provincial actor" which corresponds to "the professionalism of power" (222). In contrast, Astrid Offner - the amateur actor who plays Antigone - gives a subtler performance which is nevertheless utterly compelling in its steely determination. Whilst the reasons for the dramatic turn of events off screen seem largely due to Creon's hubris, arrogance and failure to listen, such is the power of Offner's performance, that it's difficult to escape the feeling that Antigone's defiance has somehow called all this disaster down upon him in judgement.

    The actors' static poses, unmoving shoulders and with feet which typically remain rooted to the ground, bring a surface calm to proceedings that only focuses attention on the forcefulness of the spoken word. As a result, on the few occasions when characters are not static, it is suddenly quite shocking. The strongest example of this is when a messenger, having spoken out his message, drops dead, the onscreen death, not least because despite the numerous deaths that occur during this story, it is the only one actually shown on screen. Many movies these days show unending action and violence, but have little of any value to say about it. In contrast, Antigone refuses to distract or entertain its audience with on-screen violence. The violence takes place off screen, indicated only by the actors themselves leaving the frame of the camera shots. "Axes, axes" cries Creon as he heads off to save his son. Moments later he re-enters the ancient theatre carrying his son's bloodied robe.

    As the play reaches its terrible climax, Creon leaves the theatre once again, the camera pans once again, coming to rest on a distant Sicilian mountain, entirely unaffected by the human drama that has been unveiled. But Straub and Huillet are not done. The film cuts to a closing quote from Brecht in 1952, during the Korean War and surely with one eye on the Second World War in the rear view mirror: "For humanity is threatened by wars compared to which those past are like poor attempts and they will come, without any doubt, if the hands of those who prepare them in all openness are not broken".

    The quote is accompanied by the sound of helicopters, recalling not only a line from the play about "the whirr of birds above" but also the war-as-entertainment newscast footage from the first Gulf War which concluded just a few months before filming began. But the helicopter sounds also recall Bernd Alois Zimmermann's opening music - which integrates phrases from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" - and combines with them to evoke Apocalypse Now (1979) and Vietnam. There's a parallel, then, between this portrayal of the war of the Ancient Greeks, and the American Empire of our own day. Antigone defiant stand against tyranny seems to halt Creon's kingdom and imperial designs in their tracks. Huillet and Straub bid that we do likewise in our own day.

    - Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.