• 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

    Location:
    U.K.










    Sunday, January 23, 2022

    Redeeming Love Review Round-up

    I've not had the opportunity to see the new Hosea/Gomer film released this weekend, Redeeming Love (2022), but a number of outlets have reviewed it so I thought I would link to the more key articles and highlight a few excerpts.

    Larger Publications
    The film has been reviewed by a number of larger publications in the USA. Variety's Guy Lodge calls it "long, lumbering and ideologically retrograde" and finds it's links to the Book of Hosea "superficial". He criticises the overall tone for being "drippy", "teen" and typified by "Hallmark sunrises". Finding the repetitive plot tedious particularly excoriating the "together-then-apart dance" between it's lead characters which features "no fewer than three separate shots of a wedding ring being left on a dresser." Moreover he asks a more foundational question "Does Angel need to be 'redeemed' by love, or does she just need men to cut her a break?" and jokes that "its gender politics, at least, are authentically immersed in the 19th century." 

    Katie Walsh, the reviewer for the LA Times is not alone in drawing attention to the Shakespeare quote that opens the film ("All that glitters is not gold") quipping that it "doesn’t yield any cinematic riches". She is the only reviewer I've read so far to pick up one of the things I found troubling about the trailer, specifically that the film could be interpreted as making its hero Michael...

    "an isolated religious zealot who believes he receives a message from God that a local sex worker is intended to be his wife, spurring him to kidnap her from the brothel while she’s in a weakened state and press her into a life of wifely duties though she attempts repeatedly to escape."

    Indeed she concludes that the film "plays like 'tradwife' fan fiction" and worries about why the decision to adapt this source material was made, now of all times. Walsh's review also appears at the Chicago Tribune.

    The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan only gives the film two stars out of four, but is perhaps the most positive I have come across. He praises director D.J. Caruso 's "slick work" and calls the film  "an engrossing but superficial epic" ultimately finding it "an incident-rich saga populated by cardboard heroes and villains and outfitted with greeting-card sentiments and cartoon villainy".

    Christian Critics
    In terms of more specifically Christian reviewers, Peter Chattaway has, as ever,  been all over this one, trailing Friday's release with one post looking at older more incidental uses of the Hosea/Gomer story and another looking at 21st century adaptations of the story including Oversold (2008), Amazing Love (2012) and Hosea (2018). Peter's review of the film itself is here and one of its main complaints is that the Hosea character (Michael Hosea) is not sufficiently developed:

    But if you’re going to ditch the prophetic message that is the Book of Hosea’s point, then at the very least I’d like to see some realistic human behaviour; if you’re going to tell a story about a man who dedicates his life to a complete stranger’s sexual salvation, you have to give me some sense of who he is and why he’s doing what he does.... if I’m going to believe in a relationship, I need to believe in both partners as people. Instead, what we get feels like mere wish fulfillment.

    Peter's piece also ends with a few notes similar to Peter's treatment of the other "Hosea/Gomer" films. For what it's worth I find the male character's name notable for two reasons. Firstly it just sounds bad. Michael Hosea? But also in Christian tradition Michael happens to be the name of the third original archangel after Gabriel and Lucifer (though the non-canonical Book of Enoch mentions 7). Given that the lead female character here is called Angel, the association of "The Duke" with the devil (i.e. Lucifer) and Michael's perfection this seems an unlikely coincidence. After all, the Archangel Michael is known for fighting for good over evil, defending God's people and empowering them.

    Another review from a Christian perspective is that of  Mike McGranaghan for Aisle Seat. Going for the jugular right away ("Redeeming Love is the most sexually-charged faith-based film I've ever seen. And, frankly, one of the most misguided.") and condemns its unenlightened and "relentlessly  old-fashioned" story of "a whore who's lucky to have a good man to rescue her" as well as it's use of shocking plot points just to grab attention.

    Leah MarieAnn Klett, the editor of Christian Post disagrees arguing "Redeeming Love tries hard to deal gently with tough topics, but there’s no way to sugarcoat prostitution, sex trafficking, murder and incest." Ultimately, though, Klett finds that the "film’s redemptive and biblical themes are evident, but ... overshadowed by explicit, sometimes unnecessary content" suggesting "conscientious viewers would do well to pass." 

    Given its usual support for Christian Movies I thought MovieGuide might be a little more in favour and it does support its "strong Christian worldview". However it ultimately summarises the film as "lackluster and unnecessarily graphic". Reviews like this make it interesting to see how the film will perform at the box office. It's clearly pushing the envelope for Christian movies/faith-based films, but it's based on existing IP - Francine Rivers’ 1991 novel which was a major hit in large part due to Christians - and it may be that this same audience likes this kind of content despite the warnings of its film critics. At the moment the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 95%. I don't think it's too much of  a stretch to assume that the majority of those viewers will be professing Christians.

    Other Web Critics
    Elsewhere on the web Nell Minow's 2-star review for rogerebert.com nevertheless notes how "the novel has a lot of passionate fans who will want the movie to be exactly what they imagined on the page, and that is what they will find... [it's] a story that fits comfortably and reassuringly into a particular spiritual world view." Likewise while the film's numerous instances of sexual abuse may shock some, interestingly Minow cleverly observes how this is perhaps in keeping with "the 'Hell House'-style fascination with (and amplification of) the sins of the world". She does note some positives though especially such as its "beautiful settings" and the way that leads Abigail Cowan and Tom Lewis "make a very appealing couple, warm and natural".

    If the above reviews seem bad then Anna Venarchik for The Daily Beast goes even further, even the url pulls no punches ("evangelicalisms-toxic-slut-shaming-tale-gets-the-hollywood-treatment"). Venarchik is seemingly more familiar with the Rivers' novel than many of the above reviewers which allows her to highlight things that are not explicit in the film, but nevertheless there in the subtext (for many at least, including the filmmakers) such as Michael's unintentionally hilarious description of Abigail as "a soiled dove". She ends pondering "the fates of the harlots who didn’t catch the farmer’s eye" and how the writers seem to "confirm the correlation between beauty and a woman’s prospects—the unredeemed are consumed in a hell this side of death when they perish in a fire at the brothel." It's a great review which expertly tempers its ire at the film's problematic worldview with biting wit.

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    If I can find time I might try and write some of my own thoughts about all this, albeit based on little more than the above reviews, the trailer and my knowledge of Hosea. I'm particularly intrigued by the way that Hosea and Gomer were largely absent from our screens for the first 11 decades of  cinema history and have now been depicted four times in the last 15 years.

    I mentioned above the film's audience score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.  I should note that the critics score for Redeeming Love on Rotten Tomatoes is at the other extreme, 11%. IMDb currently has it as 7.3, but it's metascore is 31%. Edit: Box Office Mojo is recording an opening weekend domestic take of $3.7 million. That's slightly less than the $4.2 million that Christmas with the Chosen made but, as Peter Chattaway reports, it's still the top ranking new movie for last week and highest film that isn't a sequel.

    It's hardly the first film to divide audiences from critics, but it's interesting to see that even the concerns of Christian critics are not putting off "the faithful". I'm curious to know how church leaders are framing this. Do they share the concerns of critics about the sexual content (or the depiction of women) or the apparent early enthusiasm of everyday churchgoers?

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    Thursday, January 13, 2022

    The Chosen (2019) s1e03

    The opening scene of the third episode of The Chosen is hard to place. Jesus is praying, outside, surrounded by trees and seemingly in a degree of anguish. If it weren't for the tent and campfire one could easily suppose this is a flash-forward to Gethsemane. The reason for Jesus's apparent distress is never clear, but eventually it emerges that this is still a time before his ministry (or at least a time he is without disciples) and that he is still working as a carpenter.

    These scant clues emerge from the various conversations with a girl from the nearby village and a growing group of her friends. A title informs us that this is Capernaum AD26 and the girl approaches Jesus holding a (broken?) doll that evokes the scene in King of Kings (1927) where Jesus uses carpentry rather than a miracle to restore a girl's broken doll. 

    When she asks Jesus tells the girl he is a travelling craftsman which includes carpentry, only the conversation summarises a fairly accurate translation of the Greek word tektōn with far more graceful writing than my explanation suggests. This goes some way to explaining the extensive gear he has with him, both for carpentry and for camping, I find myself momentarily wondering how he manages to transport it all.

    Nevertheless the opening scenes bring home to me some of the practical implications of that well known verse from Matt 8:20 "foxes have dens…but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head". It's rare in Jesus films to see him and his disciples sleeping  anywhere besides the open air, or in a rudimentary bed in a home, but of course Jesus (in time with his disciples) was a travelling preacher and must have spent many nights on the road with nowhere to sleep. I have no idea how widely-used the tents that St Paul made were, but this does make me think differently about the day to day practicalities of travelling around a variety of Galilean villages. But it soon becomes clear that this isn't just a fleeting point, it's one of the major points of the episode. More or less, the whole episode takes place in and around Jesus' temporary camp.

    The other major theme of this episode is emphasising that Jesus liked children and they liked him. This is certainly less original amongst Jesus films, but it's usually limited to a scene or two. Even The Miracle Maker (2000) where much of the action takes place from the point of view of Jairus' daughter can only devote a certain amount of time to it. Here however the series has a whole 30 minute episode to show Jesus interacting with children, without the burden of having to move on because there are three more miracles to squeeze in before the resurrection.

    It's clear too that Jesus doesn't just peddle a childish version of his message, even if he blows raspberries and uses other techniques to gain their interest, build trust and make them feel welcome. He talks about the difference between intelligence and wisdom ("Many times smart men lack wisdom") and teaches them that the messiah might not meet expectations. At a first watch I thought this was peddling the idea that all Jews at this time had hopes for a military messiah, and it does voice that idea. (As Candida Moss explains here the Jews didn't share uniform expectations regarding Messiah. Different groups had very different ideas of what it meant including mythical readings, and multiple messiah-figures). Here, however, it's one of the children repeating something he's heard a rabbi say - it's hardly painted as a universal belief and Jesus here seems to encourage the children who specifically go to Torah school as well as praising those who have learnt what is taught in school even though they do not go.

    I'm less taken by the extended scene in the middle where Jesus teaches the kids as they are all around sitting in a circle. There's just something unrealistic about it which makes the whole episode feel a bit too rose-tinted. Anyone who has had their own kids and/or tried to deliver "the serious" bit in a kids church group knows it rarely goes like this. I wonder if scenes like this - welcome as they are - maybe set unrealistic expectations. Jesus welcomed little children, but portraying him as such an exceptional children's worker feels a little much to me.

    There's also something a little overly-innocent about the way Jesus spends huge amounts of time alone with these children. Perhaps there shouldn't be. It's a sad indictment on much of western society that a single man spending that much time alone with that many kids, would raise suspicion today, though partly this is because situations like this have been so abused in the past. The children's insistence that they keep it their friendship with Jesus a secret seems particularly odd in this respect. Again, Jesus is an exception - doubtless the filmmakers consider him far beyond such issues. Still, that line bothers me. Kids! Tell your parents if you meet strange men. Parents tell your kids to do likewise.

    There are couple of nice artistic ideas in this episode. Firstly as nice foreshadowing of the resurrection when the children arrive at Jesus' camp early one day and one of them wonders if he's dead. Spoiler alert - he's not, but the tent and the way it's filmed foreshadow another time when people will arrive together, peer into a (possibly) similar hole/structure with uncertainty about if he that lay there the day before will reappear, and the relief when he does. 

    Secondly, the rain that falls during the final scene, following Jesus' departure, which director Dallas Jenkins reveals in comments after a screening was a late decision, is nevertheless a poetic and poignant one. There's a palpable sense of nostalgia in this episode embodied in this final moment. People of faith often talk about how their path through life is far from straightforward. One day everything is sunny and it feels like Jesus is there beaming down upon you; the next you're alone in the rain left nursing your memories.

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    Wednesday, January 05, 2022

    La Nativité (1910)

    My final seasonal offering this Christmas is La Nativité (1910) seemingly released in some English speaking regions as Herod and the New Born King as seen in this advert which I believe was from 1910.1. 1910 was in the middle of peak production of biblical movies (1908-13) and was one of at lease four biblical movies Gaumont was promoting at the time, with Louis Feuillade behind them all (available on YouTube).

    Despite the film's greater focus on Herod and the magi, the action starts with the shepherds inside some kind of shelter. The absence of any scenes featuring Mary and Joseph before the day of Jesus' birth is notable. The shepherds appear bottom left of the screen with the camera peering over their shoulder to a black void beyond. To anyone familiar with this era of filmmaking it's obvious what happens next. It's unclear if this is a double exposure technique or back projection, but a single angel appears in the darkness. Here Feuillade's work is rather clumsy compared to some of the work his forbears have already produced by this stage. The shepherds hold their somewhat awkward-looking pose for what seems like an age. Then the angel appears. They briefly turn to face him/her, bow, and then reconvene, holding their pose for long enough for the original angel to be joined by the full choir. Once the heavenly host has departed, the shepherds leave the shelter by the same exit to the rear of the set.

    Interestingly, a similar composition is adopted for the next shot. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus appear cramped into the bottom left of the screen, with a view extending into the distance occupying the majority of the remaining space. I've seen various version of this scene that were recorded before this one, and in every other one I've seen up to this point the camera peers into the stable from the outside. Here however things are the other side the camera (and so, by extension, the audience) is inside the stable looking out into the night. Naturally the shepherds soon appear from the rear. It's notable that neither shot would work in a theatre - they only work from the specific vantage point of the camera, not the multiple viewpoints required for successful theatre composition. Even if Feuillade's compositions don't match the standard of his later work, the idea that he just arranges his scenes as if he were arranging a theatre set doesn't hold water.    

    The version I saw runs to almost 14 minutes, but these two scenes with the shepherds occupy only three and a half minutes. As the alternative title suggests, the film's main concern is with the magi and King Herod. The next two shots cover the arrival of the magi, both outside and then inside Herod's palace. What's noticeable here is that one of the wise kings, presumably Balthazar, is played by a Black actor. I haven't researched extensively into who the first Black actor was - a cursory google suggest that a comedian called Stepin Fetchit (aka Lincoln Perry) was the first Black actor to receive a screen credit/earn $1 million but neither of these are the same thing, I'd be interested to know if anyone knows of an earlier actor from the African diaspora.

    Oddly, in contrast to the use of this actor, Herod seems to be played by someone in brown make-up. I'm curious to know how this inconsistency arose. Using a Black actor in a positive role seems somewhat progressive, but the racist use of "brownface" undermines this. What, if anything, they were trying to convey?

    One possibility is that it was a way of "othering" Herod. Herod's father was an Idumaean – a people from Edom, South-West of Jerusalem who had converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean period – and his mother was Nabataean (Arab) princess.  At the time of this production, though, Josephus' designation of Herod as an "Idumaen i.e. a half Jew" was seemingly how his background would have been understood. Perhaps this othering is intended not just to place a barrier between Herod and the audience, but also between him and the other Jewish characters (who are otherwise played by white actors). But given that the historical Herod would most likely be physically indistinguishable from the other Jewish characters the clear determination to mark him as different from them is strange.

    Herod's throne room here is quite dramatically lit, in a fashion that Feuillade also used for the scenes inside Moses' house in L'Exode (1910). There, though, they suggested secrecy, as if the family might have been hiding from the Egyptians. Here, however, the darkness feels more like a moral judgement. 

    The magi head to Bethlehem and  arrive at the grotto, shot from the same angle as before (pictured above). Next there's a cut back to the palace where Herod discusses the matter with his queen before calling three soldiers or perhaps advisers and instructing them to go to Bethlehem. The massacre scene is left off camera, as is Joseph's dream, so the next shot is simply Mary and Joseph walking quietly away from Jerusalem.   

    The author of glowing review in the December 17th edition of Moving Picture World found the film's final scene – where Mary and Joseph rest in front of the Sphinx (still above) – as particularly striking, describing the 50 ft long shot as:

    ...a real master in every sense of the word. It would be impossible to find a more beautiful composition, with such admirable light effects and of such superior photography... this last scene is art, pure and simple and will remain engraved in the memory of every person lucky enough to have a chance to gaze upon it.

    What I find more interesting is the fact that the composition of this scene matches that from the same scene in the earliest extant Jesus film La Vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (1898). As far as I can make out it's not based on Doré or Tissot so it's possible that this shot is derived in some way from the 1898, though Merson's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" seems more likely2.

    The MPW review also mentions a scene "Herod and the Woman" which does not seems to appear in the version available on YouTube unless the palace scene with his queen(my assumption) is intended. There are further reviews in the 1910 Moving Picture World including the December 31st edition (available here) which described it as follows:

    An illustration of the first part of Chapter II of the Gospel of St. Matthew. No more beautiful and artistic film has been shown during the year. Every scene is a marvel of accurate representation. The scene which Hoffman has so graphically portrayed as the "Repose in Egypt," is one of the most impressive ever shown on a motion picture screen. It depicts the search of Herod for the new born King and details the flight into Egypt to escape his jealous rage. A reading of that chapter in the Bible will supply a synopsis more graphic and complete than any that could be written now. (view on IMDb)

    Overall though the film is a bit of a disappointment. It's overly slow, not only by today's standards, but even compared to other biblical films of the time, and not in a contemplative way. Moreover it lacks the spark of Feuillade's other work even from the same year. Hard to believe that he was only three years away from the first instalments of Fantômas (1913-14). Without the action or novelty of many of the other films from biblical cinema's boom years it drags, even for those 14 short minutes. It's not bad, and short enough that it's not a bad option to drag out at Christmas and for those who are interested in Feuillade and his development as a director it's certainly worth watching. 

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    In addition to the version available on YouTube the film also appears as an extra feature in Kino's Fantômas Bluray set.

    1 - I'm grateful to John Larsen for drawing my attention to the link between these two films. (If you haven't checked out his excellent website Between Movies, you really should. It looks like the add linked to actually came from 1910's Moving Picture News (not 1911 as stated in the tweet, though I have no idea how I got hold of it as the 1910 edition isn't in the MHDL archive). 

    2 - I owe this observation to Twitter user @Zyber's post here.

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