• 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.


    Name:
    Matt Page

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    U.K.










    Wednesday, September 29, 2021

    The Chosen (2019) s1e01

    I've been slow to react to The Chosen. Last year it was difficult to access and this year, while it's been free to view for sometime, I've struggled to find the time amongst all that I'm doing for my book. It's not among the 100 films in my book and given a few conversations I've had recently, part of me does wonder if I should have included it. But only part. There are already a lot of American Jesus 'films' covered.

    It's become increasingly common, perhaps since Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to start Jesus films with a bit of context setting. The Gospel of John (2003), for example, used it to contextualise the anti-Jewish feeling in the narrative. The Bible (2013) was briefer but seemed to want to deflect criticism on opposing fronts. 

    Here it's less remarkable, but I'm struck by the line that the series is "based on the true stories of the gospels of Jesus Christ". Partly this is because of the word 'true' plenty could be written about that alone, but also because, having recently written my book I've had to think carefully about when to say "gospels" and when to say "The Gospels". I have a sneaking suspicion that at some stage they will all be ironed out to be the same, but the nuance I've gone for is "gospels" for any writing about Jesus (e.g. including The Gospel of Thomas), whereas I've used "The Gospels" for solely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Given this production's solidly evangelical credentials, I would be surprised if they meant to indicate that some non-canonical material is in there, but, if only for me, it rather leapt out.

    My next observation is similarly pedantic and text-based , but a subtitle indicates that the opening scene is in "Magdala 2 BC", featuring a young girl (presumably Mary Magdalene) and her seemingly loving father. They talk briefly about the new star and I'm intrigued about the specificity here. The death of Herod the Great in 4 BC is usually used as a frame of reference for Jesus' birth. Some ignore that (and, largely by implication, just go for 1 AD), others use a period of 4-6 BC depending on how long you think the magi took to arrive in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. 2 BC is kind of at the mid-point of those two dates. Perhaps I'm ignorant as to some tradition surrounding this, but it seems strange to be both so specific and also loosely in the middle. Of course, it's possible that Herod's presence in the narrative owes more to symbolism than historical fact, but again I don't get the impression this is the route the film is going down. Next we know it's "28 years later" and we're in Capernaum where Mary is now a problem neighbour.

    Also in Capernaum, although just for a visit is Nicodemus, here portrayed as a very eminent travelling pharisee and who is arguably the main character in this episode, though we know relatively little about him. There's his conversation with Jesus where we get significant insight into his thinking and his curiosity about Jesus' message. The rest of his story arc is drawn out sparsely but elegantly: four chapters later (7:50) he's publicly arguing Jesus should be given fair hearing, then after Jesus' death (19:39) he's amongst those who bury him. He was a pharisee - which doesn't necessarily indicate wealth or being part of the establishment, in some cases the reverse - and a member of the Jewish courts/council the Sanhedrin, which does and suggests he was an elder. 

    For our purposes The Chosen shows him as very wealthy - we first meet him in a sedan (the carried chair, not the automobile) travelling to his next appointment. He's briefly interrupted by a Roman official and speaks to him more or less as an equal. He's dressed in wealthy garments, high head gear, and with a lot of costuming additions to the Greco-Roman norm which would have been standard in Galilee and Judah at the time (even amongst the Jews). Later we meet other Pharisees who are clothed in similar fashion, so I guess this is going to be one form of othering that we are going to encounter here. Needless to say when the disciples, and then finally Jesus, appear their clothing is much more standard. (If you'd like to know more about this I suggest you keep an eye out for Katie Turner's forthcoming book, or read a summary of it in "Brian and Jesus".)

    We also meet a number of the other leading characters. Peter and Andrew are brawling fishermen skirting the laws about Sabbath observance. In an unusual, but welcome, move we meet Peter's wife who is presented as a real character. Matthew skulks around very much relying on his Roman guard, not so much for protection from actual threats as emotional support. But the two characters who in some ways are at the centre of episode 1 are nevertheless absent for most of it. Mary's presence is felt throughout, but she is largely discussed when she is off screen . There is the occasional glimpse of her - and it's clear that the film is going down the demon-possessed route as part of her story - but, aside from that opening scene, she's not developed as a character. The demons that possess her are so powerful that when Nicodemus tries to exorcise them he flees in terror with a look on his face like The Exorcist's Father Karras. "Souls such as hers beyond human aid" someone or other says ominously shortly afterwards.

    The other character, of course, is Jesus, and he is entirely absent - neither seen nor mentioned until the final few minutes and an encounter with Mary. We know the instant he arrives though because some sort of spooky music starts up. The way the production's first major Jesus scene involves a spiritually tormented Mary is not unique to The Chosen, both The Miracle Maker (2000) and DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) do something similar. Here however Jesus is a little bit creepy. It's not until he switches to King James language ("Thus says the Lord") that he drops the sleazy-guy-on-the-pull act and starts to behave a bit more normally.

    Still episode 1 does plenty to suggest that it will be worth continuing with. The photography is pretty impressive, with the many outdoor scenes allowing plenty of natural light and attractive scenery. There's some interesting camera work too, though it will be interesting to see if this continues to impress throughout the series or whether it starts to wear a bit thin after a few episodes. And the characterisation and acting is pretty good too.

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    Sunday, September 26, 2021

    Dalla nube alla resistenza (1978)
    From the Cloud to the Resistance

    As part of exploring the context of Moses und Aron (1974) I am exploring Huillet and Straub's other films including this one.

    Compared to most of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub's major works, Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to the Resistance, 1992) has had relatively little attention (in English at least). It's barely mentioned in the books of Roud, Byg, Turquety and Busch/Hering, and while, of course Claudi Pummer covers it in Fendt's books, there are also few documents relating to it in the rest of the work, nor in Shafto's Writings.

    Structure-wise the film divides into two halves, The Cloud adapts six segments from Cesare Pavese's novel "Dialogues with Leucò" (1947). The Resistance abridges another of author's novels "The Moon and the Bonfires" (1950). Whereas the first half neatly divides into six, with each section getting its own introductory intertitle and each starting afresh in terms of characters and setting, the second half is more of a single unit with the scenes and characters arranged a little more conventionally (although that is hardly a description that suits Straub and Huillet's filmic style). Of course the title shouldn't really be read as indicating a joining together of two different films. There's a flow throughout the "Leuco" section as ideas of resistance build.

    Geoffrey Nowell-Smith suggests that "the dialogues are more or less self-explanatory and do not require background knowledge of the obscurer by-ways of Greek Mythology". As someone whose knowledge of Greek mythology is largely limited to cultural osmosis and who doesn't quite have Nowell-Smith's intellect, I would have to disagree. The (English translation of the) novel alone caused Publisher's Weekly to note that "Pavese presumes the reader's fluency in the works of Homer, Hesiod and the Greek tragedians" and while the dialogues and the filming of them is interesting and the speeches are peppered with interesting phrasing, it's not easy to catch the overall drift, even after repeated viewings.

    One of the things that is interesting about the film, however, is how, perhaps more than any of their other works, it draws together the threads of the couple's previous work and joins it to their future output. Nowell-Smith recalls Straub himself comparing the film to Not Reconciled and expands on some of the points of similarity. The Ancient World setting is not the only factor which recalls Othon, History LessonsMoses und Aron and Antigone. The light, landscapes, language and literature of Fortini/Cani also springs to mind and the story of a man returning to his home town after living far away for a long time is thematically similar to Sicilia (1998). Particular shots are strongly reminiscent of Workers, Peasants. or The Death of Empedocles.

    Naturally, there's also a link to the other Straub and Huillet films based on Pavese's work. Like the first part of Dall nube, the pair's 2005 film Quei loro incontri (These Encounters of Theirs) draws on "Dialoghi con Lueco", using its final five dialogues. Following Huillet's death Straub directed four further short films also based on Pavese's work Le genou d'Artemide (Artemis's Knee, 2008); Le Streghe, femmes entre alles (The Witches, Women Among Themselves, 2009); L'inconsolable (The Inconsolable One, 2011) and La Madre (The Mother, 2012), 

    The opening scene features Issione (Ixion) debating with Nephele ("The Cloud") who is not quite in the sky, but up a tree. While she is character to be physically highest above the ground, there's already a sense that already the supposed elevation of the gods is not all it's cracked up to be. Many of the other mythical characters in these opening sections have traditionally been seen as divine to a degree, hence the Cloud of the title reached beyond this initial scene. Next Ippòloco (Hippolochus) and Sarpedonte (Sarpedon) talk in a wooden area. The location and the disruptive framing and editing recall a segment in The Death of Empedocles. By refusing to provide an initial establishing shot showing the two in relation to one another, and similarly by not using the negative space in the mid-shots of each character to indicate their relative positions, Straub and Huillet only gradually reveal how the characters are related physically. 

    The most famous sequence from the film (pictured above) is a series of lengthy shots over the shoulders of the mythical king Oedipus and his the priest/prophet Tiresias as they travel on the back of a cart by a pair of white oxen. The road stretches out into the distance ahead of them, but the shot is composed in such a way that at the centre of the shot is the horse pulling the cart and the peasant worker/farmer who is guiding him. The length of this sequence, travelling along a road with the camera looking over the shoulder and ahead, recalls the mildly controversial, and equally emblematic, driving sequences from the pair's Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), also set in the ancient world. Similarly while most of the segment involves Tiresias and Oedipus' discussions about sex, the final shot here ends in a prolonged, meditative silence, allowing viewers, to soak in the gentle background sounds of nature and the trundling along of the ox cart.

    Here however, the inclusion of the working class (hu)man interrupts the space between the two elevated figures and their dialogue and draws focus from them. While it is not quite the final scene in the first part, in some ways it's the segue from the first half of the film into the second. The focus has shifted from the mythical characters of "Dialogues with Leucò" to the ordinary twentieth century proletariat of "The Moon and the Bonfires".

    The other thing that is instantly noticeable about the cart sequence is that it is not one long shot as I had imagined before seeing it, but a sequence of shots. Many (if not all) of the joins between these long tracking (carting?) shots are marked by a slowish fade to black. I suspect this marks an elipsis in the text, but would have to check. Certainly it gives the section a sense of discontinuity. This is a longer journey and it is only part of the conversation that being recorded. Notable then that the sequence ends in the aforementioned near silent shot.

    In the final three dialogues we get two hunters discussing the wolf they have just caught which they believe may formerly have been a man. The surrounding rocks and caves which form the backdrop of this discussion suggests these are stone-age hunters. One shot here evokes Moses and the burning bush - though not Huillet and Straub's depiction of it. Then Litierse (Lityerses) and Eracle (Heracles) discuss human sacrifice and how the blood that soaks into the field is soon forgotten (linking to Fortini Cani)

    Finally, an unnamed father and son discuss historic stories of sacrifice. Two two are shepherds, so not only just human, but solidly working class, rather than kings or prophets. Furthering this move from the divine to the profane, the son is critical of the sacrificial system. His father provides numerous answers, but the son is unconvinced, suggesting that there will be further disconnect between heaven and earth int he next generation. As with the cart sequence (and elsewhere), the scene ends with a moment of silence and there are visual similarities here with the orgy scene in Moses und Aron (1975), not least the short where the son lays a bowl of liquid (here milk; blood in Moses und Aron) on the floor.

    The longest "gap" in the film is not so much a gap in the audio fabric of the film as in the opening half, but in the visuals, towards the end of part two. The second half of the film sees a man ("The Bastard", formerly a foundling) return to his home town having made his fortune in America. Much of this part consists of the man's discussions with his former friend Nuto. Nuto is a communist and describes the events of the fascist period which the foundling escaped by his emigration to America, though Christopher Small notes how many of the villagers "remain quietly loyal to fascism". Yet he also hears stories of the resistance to the Nazis.

    The foundling also befriends a boy Cinto who is from such an unstable family that Cinto is given a knife to defend himself with. Towards the end of the film, things in Cinto's family come to a head as his father kills his wife and burns down the farm with only Cinto escaping. But rather than depicting these horrific, violent acts, or even just showing the person narrating them, Straub and Huillet cut to blackand leave only the description as a voice-over. It's a fascinating way of emphasising the violence without glorifying it or manipulating it to build excitement. The prolonged absence of images is striking, but comes in the opposite spirit to the presentation of violence in conventional cinema. It also recalls the gap Moses and Aron between Acts II and III between which Aron's rebellion has been (violently?) overthrown and now Aron in lying l bound-up on the ground, awaiting trial.

    There's plenty more in the film that repeated viewings would bring out more clearly and I'd be interested to read more about it from someone who is familiar with the books. It's a shame this one has not been given more attention, nevertheless the sources might be of interest.
    ======================

    - Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (1980) "Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the cloud to the resistance)", Monthly Film Bulletin, January. pp.45-6. Available online:
    https://webapps.cspace.berkeley.edu/cinefiles/imageserver/blobs/5f9725b8-0ecf-434f-a30f/content/linked_pdf:

    - Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, pp.56-9.

    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: From the Clouds to the Resistance", mubi.com Notebook Column, July 18. Available online: 
    https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-from-the-clouds-to-the-resistance

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