• 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, December 31, 2021

    The Chosen: The Messengers (2021)

    Christmas with the Chosen opened to such demand earlier in the month that many theatres extended it's run. The show is now free-to-view on YouTube and the whole thing runs to 145 minutes including songs testimonies and mini-talks. Here, though, I'm going to focus on the final hour which is the dramatic presentation which The Chosen is known for, which has been given the title The Messengers. 

    It's not the first time the show has tackled the Nativity story. While the birth and childhood narratives have barely featured in the programme's main series, the pilot (The Shepherd (2017) - my review) dealt with the story of the shepherds found in Luke's Gospel.

    The Gospel of Luke is very much the focus of this new episode as well. The film opens in AD 48 as Tychicus smuggles Magdalene to a meeting with Jesus' mother. There Mary begins to recount the Nativity story from here angle so that Luke might include extra details amongst the "record of the stories" he is compiling.

    However, the AD48 footage is intercut with that dated 4 BC, which opens with Mary and Joseph (Sara Anne and Raja Bond reprising their roles from The Shepherd) on the way to Bethlehem. Mary thanks him for going through with the marriage and they discuss the differences in what their messengers said to them. I like the scene where they arrive in Bethlehem and Joseph struggles to work out where to find his relative. Obviously he's been to Bethlehem before, but it was a long time ago and it is much busier this time. It's typical of the way The Chosen, at its best, makes its characters human and relatable.

    The focus here, though, really is very much on Mary. While she more or less has the same screen time as Joseph in the scenes from 4 BC, the later footage clarifies that these are her reminiscences. The other factor pointing in that direction is what happens in the shots where Joseph is not present. Not only does she recite what was or will become scripture, but also it's those scenes which are the core of what she wants Luke to include in his account. 

    There are a few things to unpack there. Firstly it's interesting to see Tychicus appear on film. He's a largely unknown name from the New Testament, but he is actually mentioned five times in both Acts and Paul's letters (Acts 20:4; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:12 and Titus 3:12). They're all passing mentions, but together give a reasonable picture. He's from Asia and seems to work as one of Paul's messengers. 

    This leads onto a second point about the identification of the "Messengers" of the title. This works at a number of levels. Perhaps the most obvious points of reference here are the accounts of an angel appearing both to Mary and separately to Joseph (in a dream). Mary and Joseph seem to have decided between them that these are different "Messengers". However, in the modern story, in addition to Tychicus the word messenger could also refer to 'Mother Mary' who is relaying her message; to Mary Magdalene who will convey to Luke; and of course to Luke himself who is writing a message to the world.

    This dating of Luke's Gospel (during, or shortly after AD 48 ) is very early. Even most evangelical scholars would date it to the 60s AD and many would go past the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 towards the turn of the century. But AD 48 is even before the Council of Jerusalem, significantly before the "we" passages of Acts that many take to indicate Luke was an eye-witness of some of Paul's mission. Assuming Luke is also reliant on Mark, even the earliest dates for Mark's Gospel tend to be late 50s early 60s. 

    Of course this is all, perhaps, missing the point. The most important function of citing AD 48 is to clarify the difference between these later scenes and those which are being recalled. Perhaps a later date might have been used (mid-60s), featuring an even older Mary, but that would then require this first hand testimony to be being given by a peasant woman around 80 years old, which would be stretching credibility in other ways.

    It is an interesting conceit though because if the intention here is to shore up the reliability of this account ("OK Luke wasn't an eye-witness, but his account came directly from Jesus' mother") then why bring Magdalene and her perilous journey into play, particularly given that Mary also tells us that she has spoken to Luke directly before. Perhaps emphasising those previous meetings and Mary's direct testimony then is the point.

    The crucial difference this time is not only that Mary is perhaps approaching her death, but also that she wants to ensure the words of the Magnificat are included in Luke's Gospel. I've mentioned before Peter Chattaway's observation that this is the first non word-for-word adaptation of Mary's story to feature the Magnificat in full. There are other potential details here that arguably Mary wants to see included – honouring the inn-keeper, the use of the manger, and the significance of the swaddling cloths – but these don't seem to carry the same weight: Mary explicitly instructs Magdalene to write down the words of the Magnificat. "These felt like God's words as much as my own".

    In any case it's interesting that it posits a female source behind Luke's prologue, that at least parts of the Bible were written by women. Mary fully expects that Luke will take her contribution word-for-word and Magdalene writing it down marks a transition of sorts from oral tradition to a written source. 

    This isn't the only occasion that the film quotes significant chunks of the Bible and I quite like the way it does this, adopting a variety of methods. For example, Mary casually refers to herself thinking deeply about things, a reference to Luke 2:19, a verse that I associate with my mother reading out for a Nativity tape we prepared for my grandparents when I was a child. Or how at their parting Mary blesses Magdalene with the benediction from Numbers 6:24-26. Other early church formulations pop up as well.

    Perhaps the most striking use of the Bible, however, is earlier on when both past and future Mary recite words from  Psalm 63:1 at their differing moments in time.The sequence rifts on Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo  (1964) in a couple of ways. Rather than being all delivered in one shot, it's split between different scenes spliced together, in a similar-ish way to how Pasolini did with the Sermon on the Mount in his take on Matthew's Gospel. That seems less the idea on subsequent watches, but certainly it was my initial impression. Moreover, one of the scenes here reproduces the composition of the messenger's annunciation to Mary in the opening moments of Pasolini's film: Mary is shot from slightly below eye level and behind her a filled-in archway is shown.

    Another interesting visual idea is that Joseph sees the angels visiting the shepherds in the distance before Mary has even given birth. The special effects are a little more fancier than they are in The Shepherd where the whole thing remains off screen, but the whole episode remains committed to the human emotions and interactions that are going on, rather than the more spectacular elements. 

    I feel there are other little moments I'd like to explore – the way Magdalene writes on her lap (correct), whereas Luke uses a desk; the question as to whether Mary's writing is in Aramaic or Hebrew (anyone? [1:57:56] - it doesn't seem to be NT Greek); or whether the symbolism of the swaddling cloths was something the original audience would have understood – but I don't have time and am not sure it's of much interest to many.

    Overall there are two things that the show does nicely. Firstly, it's a fond portrayal of that period so often explored by the creative Christian imagination: the pre-Gospels era of the early church. In reality so little is known about this time and this framing narrative is almost entirely the filmmakers invention (which is not a criticism,this is dramatic exploration and the film-makes make no grander claims for their work). Nevertheless, they make the frame at least as engaging and intriguing as the picture itself and they draw you into its world.

    Secondly, its evident love of the Magnificat. It's not a passage that gets much love in the evangelical world, but it's a rare example from the Bible of a theological formulation placed on the lips of a woman. Prior to this I would probably have seen it as a later formation by the church prior to the Gospels being written, but the film makes a good case for this being something that gradually emerged from Mary as she explored her experiences. Initially just between her and God; so precious to her that it was a while before she could even share it with Joseph. Then something that it took years before she felt comfortable passing it on to others in the early church – not even sharing it with Luke when she told him the rest of her story.

    For me I most associate the Magnificat with my Dad who used to belt out the Romer/Hillebrand version of the hymn with aplomb during my childhood. So in one show I find myself, twice, transported back to my childhood and my parents faith and the warmth and hope of the Christmas message. That's clearly just me, but it nonetheless seems to chime with the moments on which the film dwells. Mary and Joseph will soon flee for their lives; Magdalene already speaks of the church facing persecution; and the older Mary will die before too long. Yet, for now there's a focus on a baby and the hope his birth brings, not just for his parents, but for the whole world.

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    Monday, December 27, 2021

    Il primo Natale (2019)
    [Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem]

    In 2019 I had a chapter published on Nativity films. Last year I had a chapter published on Italian films, which was written and finalised in 2019. So naturally, right at the end of 2019, an Italian film was released about the Nativity which was reported to be Italy's highest grossing home grown film in for 2019. That film was Il primo Natale. It's taken me a couple of years to get hold of it and to find the time to review it, but now seemed like an appropriate time to finally rectify that (although I was originally hoping to post this before Christmas Day).

    The film is the brainchild of Italian comedy duo Salvatore Ficarra and Valentino Picone, known as Ficarra and Picone, who wrote and directed the film as well as playing the lead roles of Salvo and Valentino respectively. The two are fairly well known in their native Italy, indeed a docu-series about them called Incastrati will be released on Netflix from 27th January. 

    While the Italian title translates as The First Christmas it had a limited release in English-speaking regions under the snazzier title Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem, no doubt tugging its forelock towards Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and, of course, the original Once Upon a Time film Sergio Leone's spaghetti western C'era una volta il West, (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968). 

    The film follows the not unfamiliar trope of modern-day people transported back in time to observe/take part in past events, which has formed the backbone of shows like Quantum Leap (1989-93) and Timeless (2016-18), as well as being the plot for various episodes of Doctor Who (1963-), though it's been a feature of moving pictures since at least 1913's An Unsullied Shield. Back in 1967 one such time-travel show Time Tunnel covered the story of Joshua in an episode called The Walls of Jericho so Il Primo Natale is hardly the first time someone thought of doing this with biblical stories. 

    Indeed various child-focused animated Bible series have done this as well, including both versions of Superbook (1981 & 2011) and Hannah Barbera's The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible (1985). But the only feature films I can think of that even come close to adopting this approach to the Bible is Wholly Moses! (1980) – where Dudley Moore's character finds a scroll recounting an alternative history of Moses and is then Moore plays a leading character in the story itself – and Year One (2009) where the two cavemen encounter Bronze Age Sodom. Neither film makes an explicit claim of time travel.

    Here Salvo is a thief specialising in religious art and Valentino is a Catholic priest. When Salvo steals a valuable baby Jesus figure from Valentino's church, he gives chase and the two are magically transported back to Bethlehem just days before Jesus is due to be born. Figuring that Mary is probably best placed to perform the kind of miracle they need to return home they attempt to try and track her and Joseph down. Naturally this proves less than straightforward and there are cases of mistaken identity; zealot plots; a one-eyed blacksmith; and time spent enjoying Herod's 'hospitality' all providing humorous scenarios. 

    Some of these moments work better than others. There's a good scene early on where the pair mistakenly wash their faces with the water their hosts use to wash the dust off their feet. Humour doesn't always translate across language barriers, but this was just one of several moments that I found  myself laughing at, and the comic potential of Ficarra & Picone is evident throughout.

    What I find particularly telling is that the pacing and plot of the film work fairly well. Aside from romantic comedies, many comic films rely to heavily on a single joke, struggle to get away from the pacing and story arc length of the TV series from which they derive, or feel too much like a series of sketches stretched out. One of the reasons I think Life of Brian (1979) is Monty Python's most successful film is because it feels like it's a film with a proper plot, narrative, character arcs and structure rather than a series of (admittedly hilarious) sketches. While Il primo Natale is certainly not of that calibre, it's hangs together as a film, though I think it has one too many endings.

    Moreover it also manages to be genuinely moving in places. Ficarra and Picone have bags of charm and chemistry and their double act serves the film well and the script manages to avoid being overly cynical or overly sentimental towards its subject matter. It's respectful of Mary, Joseph and Jesus while picking apart some of the more questionable traditions that have sprung up around them. Here, for example Joseph is beardless, much to everyone's surprise. Moreover, the film even manages to bring in some contemporary relevance.

    In honesty I tend to avoid most modern Christmas films. The comic ones don't fit my sense of humour: The romantic ones seem overly cloying, or manipulative (do not get me started on Love Actually). So while it's not particularly special, it certainly struck a chord with me. I can understand why Italian audiences went for it at the box office and I can well imagine watching it over future Christmas holidays. It's a decent enough, light-hearted consideration of the Nativity which doesn't trample down its subject matter in order to elevate itself. That's a difficult balance to strike so whilst it's not exactly a Christmas miracle, I hope it finds a wider audience.

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    Monday, December 20, 2021

    The Chosen: The Shepherd (2017)

    According to Peter Chattaway, a special cinematic episode of The Chosen was the highest ranking new release at the American box office last weekend. Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers charted 4th in the overall box office, but the top 3 were all new releases. Given the series' unusual distribution method, that's not just news for Bible film fans, but also for those tracking the changing relationship between streaming and cinemas.

    Sadly, it's not screening in the UK and I don't appear to be on the publicist's radar, so I thought I would continue my series on The Chosen by reviewing the show's pilot, which was also about the Nativity. As Peter discussed in an interview with the series' producer Derral Eves, while both instalments cover the original Christmas story, they do so from different angles meaning neither steps on the other's turf. From the look of the trailer, this 5-minute clip and Peter's review, the new film will be much more focused on Mary and Joseph, and (presumably) the angels that appeared to them.

    But as the title of The Shepherd (2019) suggests, the pilot primarily revolves around one of the shepherds who goes to visit Jesus and interestingly while "The Messengers" are the titular characters in the new film, they are not even seen on screen in this one. Given that the film was working on a very low budget that was probably a decision made for budgetary reasons more than artistic ones, but it works well. For me, angelic appearances, be they from The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1907), The Nativity Story (2006) or even Netflix's Midnight Mass (2021), never really work. Aside from the sheer over-literalness of them, they also bypass the imagination, and the viewer then has a brief moment to focuses intensely on the film-makers' visual interpretation, before the angels disappear again. 

    So The Shepherd's approach, which is similar to that of other Jesus series such as 1977's Jesus of Nazareth, is to shine a light on the faces of those receiving the message, but to keep the angels themselves off camera. It works well artistically, keeping the focus on the shepherds and their reactions. Moreover the actual words the angel(s) speak(s) are inaudible. This actually nicely encapsulates the film's overall approach. Much of the central focus of the biblical account, and particularly the words that are spoken, are moved to one side. Instead the focus is on the wider context. Likewise Luke's words which set the context for his gospel, are replaced by the filmmakers own textual introduction

    Given that so far I've only seen two episodes of the series and this pilot (not to mention that there is a whole third series coming which nobody has seen yet), I'm a little cautious about extending my observations. Nevertheless this seems like it sums up the series (so far). The Chosen is about providing a a broader, or palpable context for the Gospels. It will be interesting to see how this extends as Jesus' role becomes more significant. It could also make for an interesting comparison with the Brazilian telenovelas, also the product of evangelical filmmakers, and also adding a lot of additional context around the original stories).

    The angels sequence doesn't occur until the halfway point of this twenty-four minute episode. The initial focus is on the eponymous shepherd (Simōn), who appears to have reduced mobility in his left leg. He and his colleagues are heading towards Bethlehem. The film cuts towards an interior of a synagogue where a service is taking place and eventually it becomes clear that these men are not only absent from the service, but unwelcome.

    This also brings out another theme that seems to be a feature of the series – the opposition between establishment or official Judaism, perhaps we could even read mainstream Judaism, and the Jesus movement. Naturally, the words being read from the scriptures are Micah 5:2-4 "But you Bethlehem... from you shall come forth one who will be ruler over Israel". 

    This theme is also developed in a parallel, intercut, scene. Arriving in the village, Simōn approaches a pharisee (or at least a man dressed as pharisees tend to be in Jesus films) who seems to be buying spotless" lambs for sacrifice. The shepherd calls him teacher, quizzes him about the messiah and even challenges his answer about the messiah being "a great military leader" by citing another scholar. The 'pharisee' is outraged at his audacity and sends him on his way.*

    Simōn's shepherd colleagues leave him behind meanwhile the readings inside the synagogue have moved onto Isaiah 9:2 "he people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light". (This does make me wonder what he's missing. Is there a Christingle service going on in there?) The shepherd pokes his head through the door but is shoo-ed away before he can find out.

    But then just as he leaves he meets Mary on a donkey, and Joseph. he gives them directions to a well and, Ben-Hur style he offers them a swig from his canteen. Joseph asks about accommodation and mentions that they are from Nazareth. Simōn starts replying with "You know they say 'Nothing good can come from...'" but Joseph interrupts abruptly with "I know what they say about Nazareth". 

    It's a nice scene, built on the foundations of  all those 'coincidental' meetings from so many biblical films in the past, a good way to ensure the film remains Simōn's story, told from his perspective, but also to showcase what the film-makers can do with the biblical characters. Again it's this pattern of liberating them from the biblical text to make them more rounded, but necessarily therefore more 'fictional', characters.

    There follows a montage of sorts with Simōn making his own way back to camp accompanied by prophetic scriptures from the synagogue still ringing out; while his colleagues laugh and joke by a fire. Again it's providing this wider context for the story. Indeed, there's essentially a 'world building' that is at the core of The Chosen which greatly expands on a context for the Gospels, without featuring much of the biblical text, (though Peter notes that the new film is the first Jesus film – aside from the 1979 word-for-word version of Luke – to actually include all of the text of the Magnificat).

    Given the focus on Simōn it's surprising that when the angels finally appear, they appear more to his three colleagues than Simōn himself. Whereas they stand in the blinding glow of the light, he is apparently further away. He still seems to hear and understand, but without the full visitation experience. Perhaps this is meant to signify that his meeting with Mary and Joseph was of greater significance, or that he possessed such inherent true faith that he did not need to see a flashy miracle. Either way as he starts running to the stable, his leg is healed and he discards his crutch.

    The scene inside the stable is largely wordless and, but for the over-use of slow motion, fairly brief, but as the shepherds depart we do see something that is relatively rare even in Nativity films – the shepherds telling other people in the village about their experience, including a Roman soldier. This is accompanied by a voice-over reciting Isaiah 9:6-7 ("Unto us a child is born...").

    However, there's a final encounter with the marketplace pharisee from earlier who asks Simōn is he has "found a spotless lamb for sacrifice". Of course, this is meant to be ironic because Simōn has just "found" Jesus, the sacrificial lamb of God (geddit?). Simōn thinks about it, smiles to himself (as if he understands the scriptwriters joke) and there's a cut to black for the end of the show, which I kind of like.

    It's a brief vignette, yet one which even at under 19 minutes feels a little bit stretched out. Given the short amount of material that is being adapted it could have been shorter and taughter, but that doesn't detract from fairly good production values, some nice compositions, and a good central performance. And the writer, director and actor work well together to produce a fairly well rounded character. As a first look of The Chosen, it's not a bad introduction and quite a good way to taek15-20 minutes out to think about the original Christmas story and it's interesting too to see how much things move on between this and the first episode proper of the series.

    Nit-picker's Corner

    These are some details for my fellow pedants, but I don't consider them to have the same importance with the above...

    As with the first episode there's an opening series of titles which here assert that this is "based on the true story from Luke's Gospel". I discussed my thoughts on that in my coverage of the first episode, but here it also adds that "the prophets of Israel had been silent for 400 years". That number is oddly specific for something that is so debatable. Israel (as opposed to Judah) had been disbanded following Tiglath-Pilesar's sacking of the kingdom around 722BC. Judah's prophet's continued and Malachi is usually dated to the decades before 400BC, but many scholars date the book of the prophet Daniel to much, much later (around 150BC). That's not a popular view in the evangelical world from which this film has arisen, but even in those circles it is voiced occasionally.

    The prophecies whispered of a coming messiah who would save God's people

    *I find this scene problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly ever since reading Katie Turner's thesis about costumes in Jesus films I find the ahistorical visual othering of the pharisees even more troubling than I did before. But this is a low budget production so it's perhaps unrealistic to expect it to do anything beyond mirroring the conventions of the genre. Secondly if this man is a pharisee why is he not only absent from synagogue, but working on the Sabbath? And I'm curious as to how this market location in Bethlehem relates to the site of animal sacrifice in Jerusalem. I imagine that if the numbers of sheep used in the temple were considerable they would have had to be sourced from further afield, but then the pharisee would then surely need someone to help him get them there, such as, well, a shepherd. Lastly, based on my limited understanding, the kind of back-and-forth debate the shepherd attempts to engage in is a common Jewish approach to the scriptures, so it seems odd that the pharisee would be outraged. But perhaps this is the film-makers point, that Judaism in Jesus' time had lost its way.

    Like I say these are minor thoughts that come to me, not really substantial criticisms of the film, but I know they will be of interest to some people who read this blog so I thought I may as well share them.

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