• 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.


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    Sunday, April 25, 2021

    Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa, 2001)

    Regular readers will know that, owing in part to my fascination with Moses und Aron (1975) I like to write about the work of the film's directors Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. At the risk of pushing things even further I recently got a chance to watch Pedro Costa's documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) shot in the editing suite as Straub and Huillet worked on their 1999 film Sicilia!

    Naturally this is a film that I have wanted to view for a while, not least because Jean Luc Godard called it "the best film ever made about film editing" (see this video), so the fact that it you can currently stream it from Grasshopper/Projectr.tv. was great news for me.

    As you might expect the film reflects much of its stars' trademark style: diagonal shots and long takes captured with a fixed and seemingly impassive camera. If you count film as a text, then one could even go further and note that the passage of Elio Vittorini's novel "Conversazione in Sicilia" into Huillet and Straub's film and then into Costa's documentary is typical of their multi-layered adaptations. Indeed much of the running time is given over to close-ups of that 'text', primarily shot from the screen in the editing suite. Brief excerpts play and then are re-wound, forward and back until the subtitler gives up translating and we wait while one of them pinpoints the frame they were trying to find.

    The subtleties revealed by this are immense. Seemingly insignificant details, the slackness in a wrist, the bow of a head, a branch flitting about in the background are highlighted and debated as the pair seek to solve the problems they cause. As someone without any experience of what happens in the editing room it's hard to know if this is typical or not. Perhaps if Costa had set up shop with Scorsese and Schoonmaker the same level of exacting precision would have been captured, but it seems unlikely that the rigour on display here is typical. It's perhaps all the more surprising because of the length of the typical shot in a Straub-Huillet film. One wonders about the number of shots it has taken to even taken them to get this far.

    Yet if Costa's film bears many of the marks of its subjects' style then one key difference is the way in which the dialogue is delivered. In many Huillet-Straub films it is deliberately very mannered and forced. There's an emphasis on rhythm and cadence of the language (which gets mention at one point here). Yet the dialogue here is quite the reverse. I don't know for a fact how Costa shot it but all the indicators point towards it simply being their natural dialogue. And what dialogue it is! Much of it is the back and forth of a married couple who are closing in on 40 years of working together. They bicker and chide, but never with anger, or to cause offence - these conversations feel well worn, familiar, perhaps even comfortable. Huillet (as the primary editor) is trying to focus on the task in front of her and Straub injects with something unrelated. Or he messes with the light. Clearly these discussions have happened many times before and so you sense so much about the strength of both their relationship and the nature of couples who have been together for so long. She knows how he is: he wouldn't object to changing but just cannot Time has mellowed their little conversations, and in any case there is a film to make.

    In between this domestic banality there is a masterclass in film philosophy and practice. Straub talks about this similarities between editing a film and a sculptor working with marble. Just as the sculptor has to work with the veins in the raw material so must they. Elsewhere Straub, in the words of John Dickson "can’t help telling stories about Bunuel, Ray, Chaplin, and Eisenstein, as he paces in and out the door of their editing room, which might as well be the portal to another world".(1) 

    That portal effect (see above) is one Costa creates by his immersion of the camera in the dark recesses of the editing suite. There are no establishing shots, introduction or pre-suite interviews. The film starts in the editing room and remains there except for a few scenes where the pair present the show to an audience. The camera moves position, occasionally someone even turns on the light, but it's a film of warm shadows and silhouettes. The filmmakers are present, usually on camera (unless Sicilia! is), but only rarely in such a way to be able to capture their features. Instead we capture their essence. Their warmth and humour, but also their focus, particularly Huillet's who keeps the more restless Straub on course.

    I'd like to go into more detail, but am both pushed for time and my three-day ticket has expired. I'm aware that Costa's role is pivotal. As Jean Pierre Gorrin asks "What did he do to give us the Straubs with such vitality?"(2). But I'm also short of time and the chance to re-watch it. But the film has been written about else where (in addition to Dickson and Gorrin) and those reviews do enough to re-kindle my memories.

    It would be easy to dismiss this as a film about insignificant details, and, as with many of Straub, Huillet's films it can seem paradoxically dull and engorssing. But it's a film that stays with you. Its words and images. Having never heard Huillet and Straub talk before it's fascinating to see them move, speak, discuss and work, and to see the relationship between them. For that along it will be memorable, but it also captures so much of their spirit. In a wonderful final shot the two approach the theatre inside a cinema where Sicilia! is playing. Outside in the red velvet lobby Huillet continues up the stairs to the projection booth, but Straub stays behind as the music drifts out from inside. He sits on the stairs as if soaking in the moment. In one sense he seems to revel in having a solitary moment left to his own devices. But in another he seems alone and bereft without her. Like so much that has gone before its a moment that seems to encapsulates their relationship perfectly.

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    1 - Dickson, John (2017) "Pedro Costa’s WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? (Documentary Revival)" in Cine File: Cine: List (Friday July 21 -  Thursday, July 27). Available online: https://www.cinefile.info/cine-list/2017/7/21/-friday-july-21-thursday-july-27-

    2 - Gorrin, Jean Pierre (2016) "Nine Notes on Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?" in Ted Fendt (ed.)  Jean-Marie Straub & Danèle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, p.156.

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    Wednesday, April 21, 2021

    Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020). Parts 1&2

    Nehemiah  is a rather overlooked biblical character. Not only has he been almost entirely ignored by filmmakers, but 18th and 19th century operas and plays; novelisations; picture Bibles and Christian art have been significantly less concerned with his story than that of earlier characters from the Hebrew Bible. Even those reliable staples of Victorian-era Christian Art - James Tissot and Gustave Doré only produced a handful of works between them, such as Doré's "Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem's Walls" and "The Rebuilding of the Temple" Tissot's "Nehemiah and the King" and "Nehemiah Sees the Ruins of Jerusalem.

    So it's something of a surprise to discover that last year (of all years!) the Jehovah's Witnesses made what appears to be the first significant screen adaptation of the story. Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020), split into two parts, covers most of the material in Nehemiah, before delving into the Book of Malachi in towards the end of part two. That in itself is an unusual choice, but it's even harder to fathom given the film's treatment of Ezra. 

    The precise relationship between the two men is somewhat unclear. In the popular imagination, however, they are often seen as more-or-less contemporaries, not least because partway through the book of Nehemiah, Ezra pops up to read the law to the people - a moment that's pivotal to the text as a whole. Scratch the surface, though, and there are reasons to think this passage was inserted at this point in the text for thematic emphasis, rather than historical verisimilitude. It's hard to establish a smooth chronology and as a result some scholars see Ezra as preparing the way for Nehemiah's work, others see them as more or less contemporaries, while still others seeing his reforms as coming significantly after Nehemiah's.

    The film begins with a prologue that gives more or less the traditional chronology,1 and goes on to call Ezra as "a man who had come before" Nehemiah, and show that he was still around to read out the law the marketplace at the start of part two. But both men are still young and therefore contemporaries, so the decision to sideline Ezra, to the extent that he doesn't even feature in part 1, but gives such prominence to Malachi is an interesting decision. 

    This is probably an attempt to downplay the racist messages which are found in both Ezra and Nehemiah, but are largely attributed to Ezra. The film largely summarises Ezra's policy of wide-scale divorce foreign wives (Ezra 9-10) and dispelling foreigners from Jerusalem (Neh 13:3) as responding to a single misdeed, "divorcing our wives to marry foreign women" which is the most (still not that) palatable part of his policy. Later Nehemiah speaks out those who have divorced their Jewish wives to marry those from other tribes.

    The inclusion of the Malachi material takes up a sizeable portion of part 2 and allows the portion on tithing to be included. It's worth remembering at this point that this film is a teaching aid produced by a worldwide denomination - as indicated by a preacher at the start of the film - and the film includes one of the passages that is used, in various forms of Christianity, to promote the idea that 10% of church-members' income should be given to the church.

    I first watched this film a month or so ago and in the meantime the issues I've reflected most upon are to do with the sets and lighting. Even the "distressed" sets have the feel of being brand-spanking new.This is somewhat contrary to most 21st century epics, where the trend has generally been to portray all biblical era sets as being old-looking and rundown. The increasing popularity of Italy's medieval town Matera as a location is both a cause and an effect in this respect. 

    While I must admit I love the look of Matera, and that aesthetic, at the same time it's also something of a construct. As much as the buildings we see on screen represent something from the past, that does not mean they would have been old at the time of the story. Indeed, at some point, all buildings were new. Modern cities tend to feature architecture of various ages and while we might hypothesise that certain cities after a recent razing might be more homogeneous, or that the time range might be narrower due to lower standards of expertise, even those assumptions can be challenged. For example, some buildings from this era still stand today - hardly indicative of shoddy craftsmanship. Of course, what's particularly interesting in the case of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it literally is a story about a building project to redevelop a city. Certainly by the point in the film by which the building work is completed it's not unreasonable for buildings to be looking pristine. 

    That said, I'm just as bothered by the 'before' scenes (see enlarged version of the above photo). The filmmakers have attempted to make Jerusalem's walls seem damaged by a siege and 70 years of ageing, but the city still seems sterile and fake. I'm reminded of DeMille's hurriedly instructing his team on The Ten Commandments (1923) to grab bits of seaweed at the last minute so that the sea bed would look genuine when the waters parted. Struggling to put my finger on what exactly was wrong in this respect I asked Twitter and I'd like to thank the people who were kind enough to reply.2 They confirmed that the lighting was the biggest problem as well as pointing out a few other issues (such as CGI integration, post-production work and the costumes). 

    Given this is a relatively low budget film it is perhaps unfair of my to hone in on this, but it does take me right out of the film: I'm never able to buy into the world that is portrayed as being real rather than a bunch of actors on a set. Instead I find myself asking question that would never normally occur to me.3 As I prefer to keep my focus on the positive aspect of a film and the points of interest it raises, I'll refrain going into the film's various other problems such as the acting and the dialogue.

    While the film is wary of wandering away from the biblical text too much it does include a number of invented figures so the audience can experience the events from there perspective. Peleth and Imma  are a Jewish couple who originally came to Jerusalem with Ezra along with another man Raham to whom they are now in debt. (The names Peleth and Raham both feature much earlier in the Biblical chronology, but not in Ezra-Nehemiah).4 Imma and Peleth follow Nehemiah (and, by implication, God) faithfully while Raham grows to question Nehamiah's plans as well as trying to convince Peleth to sell his daughter into slavery to pay off the debt Peleth owes him. Peleth later divorces his Jewish wife to marry a Moabite.

    These fictional episodes run alongside the biblical episodes which did highlight to me various incidents that I otherwise didn't recall. The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh 8:13-18) towards the start of part 2 is portrayed in a fairly vivid fashion which makes it stand out more compared to the six verses in the text. Though perhaps it won't be quite as memorable to those who have not seen Ushpizin (2004).
    Similarly the incident where, Tobiah, one of Nehemiah's main opponents talks his way into getting a room in the temple (Neh 13:4-9).

    While the film is artistically and dramatically weak and is very selective in its presentation of the original book's most problematic area, it is the only significant attempt to adapt the book of Nehemiah - at least that I know - and so will doubtless be of interest to many seeking a dramatised version of these stories. I may post a scene guide, but for now you can view or download the two parts of this film here:

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    1 - This is usually that the first Jews return in 537BC; the restoration of the temple is completed in 515 BC; Ezra returns in 458BC and Nehemiah leaving for Jerusalem around 445BC. However the film does not give a date for Ezra and moves Nehemiah up to 455BC. The JW's New World Translation agrees with most other translations that Nehemiah 2 starts in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (465-424BC).
    3 - Why has no-one taken the rubble for their own building projects as was common? Is that how we would expect walls to fall in this circumstance? Why have the fallen stones weathered so much more than the stones? These are pedantic questions, I know, but the come from pulling at the thread of "why does this world not seem genuine?". 
    4 - Peleth is named as the father of one of those who complain in Num 16:1 alongside Dathan who alone tends to be the token dissenter in Moses adaptations, Presumably he is also father of the Pelethites mention in various lists in Samuel Kings and Chronicles. Raham just gets a single mention in 1 Chron 2:44. Interestingly the filmmakers do not use the names of those listed as returning with Ezra in Ezra 8 as they are only the heads of clans and, I imagine, they wanted to show the experience of ordinary people like the Witnesses for whom the film was intended.

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    Friday, April 02, 2021

    Das Neue Evangelium (The New Gospel, 2020)

    © Fruitmarket_Langfilm_IIPM_Armin Smailovic

    "I couldn't do a Jesus film here as Pasolini did" explains director Milo Rau, partway through The New Gospel "without including these real social problems we have and go back to the Gospel and go back to the social revolution for which Jesus stands for in his time." Charged with reworking Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) as part of Matera's stint as the European City of Culture in 2019, Rau initially headed to the ancient southern Italian town imagining a more conventional take on Pasolini's famous adaptation, but things changed when he encountered the improvised migrant settlements around the outskirts of the city. 

    The economic migrants and asylum seekers that stay there were living in severe poverty, often working on the surrounding farms for around four euros a day in stiffling conditions and returning to improvised homes without water or electricity. Rau decided this was the situation that should be at the heart of his multidisciplinary project which not only included documenting the lives of those living in temporary migrant settlements, and casting them in a Jesus film, but also taking part in non-violent marches and protests that sought to draw attention to the issues.

    In the lead role of Jesus, Rau cast African-Italian activist Yvan Sagnet, who was given the Italian Order of Merit in 2016 by Italy's then president Sergio Mattarella. Sagnet first became an activist in 2011 when working as a student labourer he witnessed first hand a colleague passing out due to heat exhaustion. The foreman docked his wages to cover the costs of getting him medical attention. Such practises are not uncommon particularly on tomato and orange farms, which are often mafia run.

    What makes Rau's "utopian documentary" so interesting is the way it juxtaposes Matera's apparent serenity with the struggles of these migrants. It was similar levels of rural southern poverty that attracted Pasolini to Matera in the first place. The lack of development that left the city unspoilt was primarily a sign of poverty. In the years since Matera doubled for Jerusalem in Pasolini's Matthew, it has been used subsequently for a string of other Biblical films including King David (1985), The Nativity Story (2006), Young Messiah (2016), Ben-Hur (2016), Mary Magdalene (2018) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004. But it's Pasolini's film that is very much front and centre here not only in terms of ideology and direct homage but also artistic form. Pasolini described himself as a "pasticheur" cobbling together disparate source material drawn from both "high" and "low" culture.1

    The film continues this tradition, but with a new twist for the 21st century. Careful shot-for-shot reproductions of scenes from Pasolini's 1964 film sit alongside documentary-style making-of footage  that recall his location scouting films such as Sopralluoghi in Palestina (1965) and Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (1970). And in weaving these two elements together Rau recalls Pasolini's tragi-comedic short from La ricotta (1962). It blurs the boundary between documentary and fiction taking "making-of" type footage and blending it back into the mix. In one shot straight out of Pasolini's film Jesus has his head bowed and eyes closed as if having breathed his last. But then teh director says "cut" and Sagnet open his eyes and breathes a sigh of relief as the camera keeps rolling beyond the end of the scene.

    This juxtaposition of contrasting images kicks in early in the film between the first and second proper scenes. One minute of Rau and Sagnet chat as they survey the beauty of Matera at sunset, the peaceful old city bathed in dusky light. Suddenly there's a cut to a roving daytime shot within one of the temporary settlement on the outskirts of the ancient city. 

    While it's the kind of contrast that Pasolini would have loved, the cross-references go far deeper than this. Rau is joined on set by the star of Il vangelo  Enrique Irazoqui, now in his mid 70s and a freeman of Matera, a status he very much appear to enjoy (alongside his role in international chess). Irazoqui fulfils several roles not only does he act as an ambassador for the film within Matera (a fan expresses their admiration for him at one point and he swiftly takes the opportunity to encourage them to come to the shooting later in the day), but also he acts as a coach to Sagnet as well as appearing in the film as John the Baptist - handing over the mantle to his cinematic successor. Moreover Irazoqui also features in the film as his younger self. Two excerpts from the 1964 film are shown firstly as Irazoqui, Rau and some of the other crew watch it from within a tiny cinema, and then later as the film is shown in the open air to a group of the migrants. 

    Rau's New Gospel also incorporates various sections of music from the original - a reminder of how transformative that music is - though interestingly it's the older, classical pieces that Rau retains. The more modern songs from Il vangelo's soundtrack are replaced by other more contemporary songs again an interesting blend of folk and more contemporary African music. 

    These direct references are complemented by more oblique ones Sagnet (out of character) arrives at a fig orchard only to find this time fig trees have been destroyed by hail and rain, rather than by Jesus' curse. And of course Pasolini's original is repeatedly recalled in views of the city (both in precisely matching compositions and 'just' in the background) and in discussions about the project they are undertaking, including that opening scene where Rau and Sagnet discuss Matera's cinematic pedigree. 

    The two also discuss Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) in this scene, and as with Pasolini's film, numerous verbal and visual references to The Passion follow. Also starring is Maia Morgenstern the actor who played Jesus' mother in Gibson's film. Here she reprises her role re-enacting identical shots, most notably during the crucifixion, but also at times evoking images of Pasolini's mother Susanna in the same role. The other scene that recalls Gibson's film is Judas' suicide where already troubled local children hound him and chase him far from the city.

    In The Passion of the Christ that sequence was one of the most troublingly antisemitic parts of the film. Here the question of race cuts in a different direction. Firstly, the children's faces do not distort (whereas in Gibson's film this perpetuated the children of the devil trope). Secondly, whereas in The Passion the issue of race centred on the depiction of those playing Jewish characters, here the suggestion is the persecution these children dish out is racially motivated. In isolation that could also be read as antisemitic, but the difference is the way the film consistently centres itself on the modern parallels. The film's terrain indicates the children here meant to be Italian not Jewish. 

    There's a similar unease during the scene with Jesus and the crowd before Pilate. Again this is one of the problematic elements in The Passion and here the question of race is at the fore as someone in the crowd racially abuses Jesus for being black. That could be read as indicating that the crowd here was loyal to Rome (is there always more of a sense of this in Italian Jesus films than in those of Hollywood I wonder?), but it could also be read as drawing a sharp divide between the proto-Christians and the Jewish people. Again the way the film persistently invades the historic footage with its modern context throws the focus heavily onto modern interpretations, but, in honesty I'm not entirely comfortable in either scene. But then I suspect I'm not meant to be.

    But perhaps the film's most disturbing scene occurs during an audition for the guards. In what feels like the film's longest shot a seemingly mild-mannered practising Catholic removes his shirt, picks up a whip and beats a plastic chair to within an inch of its life, all the while unleashing a tirade of racial abuse. The film gives little indication as to whether the man is improvising or if these are lines he has been given. Something is unmasked in that moment, but is it an unrecognised acting talent, or an indication of of the strength of racist feelings that exist towards African migrants. The options are so stark that is feels a little reckless to leave them without comment or clarification.

    In a sense, this is just one of many examples of self-perception and reality being out of step. In addition to this actor, and Matera itself (with rich tourists flocking seemingly unaware of the poverty hidden around the city's fringes) we could add the city's mayor. He chooses the role of Simon of Cyrene and is shown pontificating about how a his official role is about servanthood.2 Yet he also represents the town's authorities who are not only failing to act to alleviate the migrants suffering and exploitation, but also exacerbating it. Viable accommodation for the migrants remains empty for years. Meanwhile the mayor's police destroy even the meagre temporary accommodation some migrants had. Having visited one of the improvised migrant settlements searching for people to join his march into the city, Sagnet returns later to find the police have bulldozed it. "Foxes have dens..but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".

    The film highlights the illegality of some of this activity n(paying below minimum wage for example) and is at pains to point how rules in place to protect migrants and farm workers are either not being applied or actively broken. This is why the first words of Jesus spoken in the film are from Matt 5:17 - "I have not come to break the law but to fulfil it". This seems to be the heart of much of the activism of Sagnet and the others. The rules are in place to protect them. Often what is happening is either neglectful or illegal. 

    The film does manage to end on a positive note, a resurrection of sorts I suppose, as the church manage to provide some space for accommodation and Sagnet is able to celebrate the creation of a mafia-free brand of tomato sauce, but it's set against a backdrop of tragic stories: acquaintances and family members lost at sea, racism facing those who survive, and system that either unwillingly or deliberately works to prevents the many migrants entering the country from thriving. For all its celebration of Italian culture and )religiously inspired?) activism, this is not a film that dishes out easy answers.  

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    1 - Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute. p.28
    2 - When the scene does arrive there is an interesting role reversal here. Ever since Sidney Poitier played Simon of Cyrene in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) he has often been portrayed by black actors, usually assisting a white Jesus.

    Here are some interesting links which I don't have time to embed in the above text just now.

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