• 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.










    Friday, June 24, 2022

    The Chosen (2019) s1e05

    I've been busy trying to promote my book recently, so it's been a while since I posted one of these and, as it is, there's now so much commentary on The Chosen out there now that I'm not really sure how much this will be worth the effort. (As well as their main YouTube channel there are this channel and this video as well. And of course Peter T. Chattaway's episode-by-episode guides to this series are an epic work in themselves, though I generally avoid reading them so I know that what I'm writing is my own thoughts, rather me subconsciously repeating what I've heard him say and it leaves me free to write a more impressionistic/first thoughts article rather than feeling I need to tick every box. This time I did read his piece all be it 2 months before I wrote this, but I now I realise I've dwelt on a detail he dwelt on first – regarding James – so that must have gone in and stuck somewhere. Then again I've obsessed about this before, so.... Anyway, if you want a more comprehensive take on this episode, read his review.

    Still The Chosen is so popular right now that even if my posts can only garner a tiny fraction of the audience looking for related material and they will still get more interest than the other pieces I'm thinking of doing at the moment, such as writing about Jesus in series 10 of Red Dwarfmaking additional points about Roberto Rossellini's Il messia (1975) or commenting on his "appearance" in season 5 of The Good Fight (2021). And I do want to catch up with it rather than falling further behind.

    Lost in Jerusalem
    This episode is titled The Wedding Gift and as that suggests covers the Wedding at Cana. However, already we've seen in this series how it combines knits together stories from the Gospels for dramatic effect (as other films have done before hand). So here we start not at the beginning of John's Gospel (where we find the Wedding at Cana in chapter 2), but at the start of Luke, with the story of the boy Jesus getting lost in the temple (2:41-50). 

    This happens for two reasons. Firstly it gives greater focus to the relationship between Mary and Jesus, which is pivotal in the incident in Cana, but secondly to emphasise the question of timing. Once Jesus is found Mary says "It's too early for all this" and her gestures suggest that she means Jesus is growing up more quickly than she is happy with. Jesus counters, quoting Rabbi Hillel (who perhaps died around the time as this incident)  "If not now, when?". This contrasts with the part in the Wedding at Cana story where now it is Mary trying to move Jesus along, and it is he that is seemingly a little reticent to see things progress. This time it is Mary's turn to use the Hillel quote.

    Peter
    Next we get a scene of Peter recounting to his wife the events of the previous episode, including his struggle to see in himself what Jesus does. They also discuss their own wedding and enjoy a brief romantic moment in the wine press. The use of the winepress as a location in their house (perhaps unlikely that an indebted fisherman has his own winepress) also allows the filmmakers to emphasise how integral wine is to the culture etc. The scene ends with them kissing as the camera pans away, ending with a shot that, were it from a different filmmaker might be read rather differently....

    James not James the Big
    This part of the episode is one example of the series becoming a bit more soap opera-y. It's immediately followed by some banter between Peter and Andrew in a similar vein. Eventually the two of them meet with Jesus and the other disciples who now number 7 including Mary Magdalene. (though there's a indication that there will soon be 12). 

    Then there's a moment distinguishing between the two James', something that is a bit of a confusion in early Christian tradition because there are four different James-names: James the Brother of John & son of Zebedee; James, Jesus' cousin/(half?) brother; James son of Alphaeus and  James the Less, or James the Little / Younger / Minor / Lesser. Many argue that there are only two men, James son of Zebedee and James the Less, where James the less is Jesus' cousin and son of Alphaeus, but there are various problems with that and with the proposed alternatives. 

    So it's perhaps understandable that when faced with two James' one of whom is bigger than all the other disciples and the other is smaller than the others he hesitates and waits for them to self-distinguish (while many of the audience is mentally thinking "Little James"). James son of Zebedee eventually breaks the silence by suggesting he be "Big James" and then Jesus says "is that acceptable to you young James" and it sounds like it's just an adjective, but it's obviously a nod to the designation in Mark 15:40 (not the work of the main author of Mark). But this skips over the fact that the title Young James is used seemingly to describe Jesus' mother, so it's odd that Jesus isn't a bit more familiar with his brother / cousin. In any case it's possible that we will find that "Young James" is the brother of Matthew/Levi (also a son of Alphaeus who didn't seem to know Jesus particularly well in the last episode). So it's a bit of a fudge, but done with some internal and external humour/nods to nerds like me so I kind of admire it for that. The "young James" thing is so easy to miss, but a nice detail.

    Magdalene
    Having banged on about James I find I've not yet mentioned the fact that of these 7 disciples one of them is Mary. This is quite a radical step and I am here for it. Given we're now in John territory, it's worth pointing out that John never uses the concept of 12 disciples. There are 2 passages here John 6:60-71 where he actually contrasts "the twelve" with "the disciples" and John 21:1-3 where we get the only numerate reference to the disciples - a list which adds up to 7 members, though 2 are unnamed. So Mary being here and there being 7 disciples at this point is pretty Johanine. And I like the way it gives Mary more prominence.

    Thomas
    An eighth is on the horizon though, because in this episode we're also introduced to a man called Thomas. Here Thomas is one of the caterers for the wedding who are unsure whether to get 3 jars of wine or 4 for the numbers. Note that uncertain/doubting personality being hardcoded in from the start. "I just want to be certain" he says, just seconds after we first his name. Numbers-wise its a marginal call and as he, his partner Rhema and the happy couple are under financial pressure they opt for the three. 

    The implication here seems to be that the reason that turns out to be the wrong call is due in no small part to the fact that Jesus turns up unexpectedly accompanied by his disciples. I remember hearing this theory in evangelical circles years ago and it struck me then as an odd rhetorical flourish. Here though there are many others and they fall well short "it's only the first day" when Jesus is told the wine is out. I'm not sure the maths here really adds up.

    When Jesus starts dishing out instructions there's more of this "Thomas was always a doubter" schtick. Jesus' instruction to "Fill these jars with water all the way to the brim" is met with a "why" shortly followed by a "From the directions you have provided I see no logical solution to the problem". Doubting aside I'm not sure even Sheldon would say something like that. It''s interesting, though, that when Jesus comes to perform the miracle he asks Thomas to step outside – denying him the opportunity for clear proof of witnessing a miracle.

    But it's then that Jesus suggests he is going to ask Thomas is going to join him and he praises those same questioning characteristics "It is good to ask questions to seek understanding". And then he calls him, instead of talking about making fishers of man he uses a term relative to his profession "Join me and I will show you a new way to count and measure; a different way of seeing time." Thomas is left struggling to make a decision as to whether to follow "I don't know what to think".  I found the response – with it's obvious message for the doubters of today – a little worrying: "So don't. Don't think". Er, OK then.

    More about Jesus
    The performance of the miracle is overlaid by one of the other characters delivering a monologue about the difference between smithing and being a stonemason and how "once you make that first cut into the stone it can't be undone" shortly afterwards Jesus (who's is clearly weighing up the decision whether to begin his ministry) says "I'm ready Father".

    Before all that though we learn quite a few other things about Jesus from an early conversation his mother Mary and her close friend the bridegroom's mother, Dinah. Dinah bets he's grown up to be handsome. Naturally, Mary does not deny it. More crucially we learn from Mary that Jesus' father Joseph has already died.

    Jesus also reveals a little, recalling an incident in the past where he "was a clumsy teenager who cracked my head open" which an interesting indicator that while the series may see Jesus as free of sin, he still has human imperfections. Suffice to say there are times in church history when that would have been seen as controversial – perhaps even with some folks today. 

    We also hear about his values at this stage. Talking about the wedding he says "The most important person I know will be there: my mother". Lastly we get to see Jesus dancing. This has taken place in a few Jesus films following The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – Jesus (2000) and Shanti Sandesham (2003) spring to mind. The dancing in question seems a bit too stereotypically Jewish for my liking, by which I mean stereotypically modern-day Orthodox Jewish. I don't think there's any reason to assume that Jewish dancing styles have remained largely unchanged over 2000 years, particularly given how much dancing styles in the UK varied across the 20th century alone.

    Exaggerating
    The Chosen does seem to have a tendency to take fairly basic things and push them to an even further degree. The first such passage in episode 5 takes place right at the start with the boy Jesus conversing with the teachers in the temple. Luke 2:46-47 says he was "listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers". Here, though, Joseph says Jesus "was teaching when I found him...they barely let us leave" (emphasis mine). That's quite a step beyond the text though it could be put down as Joseph's exaggeration rather than the filmmakers.

    Except of course that this is a pattern and we get another example in this episode which concerns the quality of the wine that Jesus "turns". In John's Gospel the steward makes the comment that "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now" (2:10). Here however, this practice is mentioned once in the build up to the wedding and again after the miracle, only the steward – who, one presumes, will have tested tasted quite a lot of wine in a professional capacity – describes this wine as "the best wine I have ever tasted". 

    This is actually why its such a relief when Mary is asked about Jesus' career that she doesn't go off into a eulogy about his carpentry skills, but reacts with more of a shrug. I like the little hint that even though, really she knows who he is and the importance of his new job, there's part of her that still wishes he was diligently following in Joseph's footsteps.

    The End (of the Beginning)
    Even though I left out the discussion about the ongoing conversation between John the Baptist and Nicodemus, this piece went on far, far longer than I intended it to be, doubtless why it's taken me 3 months to write it up and publish it. Next time I'll have to go for less detail and quotes and more general first impressions or else I'll never get through the series. (Indeed while I've been writing this Peter Chattaway has posted a fascinating he ran with The Chosen's director/show runner Dallas Jenkins. Check it out).

    Nevertheless, we've reached a turning point though. It wasn't over emphasised but one of the discussions amongst he disciples ends with one of them concluding that the private phase of Jesus's private ministry has come to a close and now he is moving onto the public stage.

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    Tuesday, June 14, 2022

    Magdala (2022) Plays at Cannes ACID

    I've paid Damien Manivel’s Magdala only a fraction of the attention that I should have and now I find that it has already played at the ACID Festival (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) that runs alongside the main Cannes Film Festival, so it really is about time I posted something about it.

    Magdala is a dialogue-free film, apparently similar in style to Albert Serra's Birdsong (2008), that features an elderly Mary Magdalene, reflecting on her time with the long-departed Jesus. It's French made, and, at only 78 minutes, it's one of the shorter biblical features I've come across in a while.

    As ever, my friend Peter Chattaway has been much more on the ball with the news. After an initial post in January 2021, he followed up in April with the news the film would be playing at ACID, and now he's got excerpts from some reviews of the film and a few images and video clips.    

    In an interview for Cineuropa Manivel describes his film as "very minimalist in some sense, but it also places sensations centre stage" and was born out of his desire to work with the film's star, Elsa Wolliaston, again, following their collaboration on two short films La Dame au chien and Isadora’s Children.  

    The reviews seem largely positive so far, though, that is, in part, because all the reviewers seem to appreciate Manivel's austere approach. As a fan of that kind of thing, I'm looking forward to it too. Hopefully it won't be too long before I'm able to report back. Mubi streamed Manivel's last film Isadora's Children (2020) – for which he won Best Director at the Locarno Film Festival – so hopefully they will be showing Magdala at some point as well.

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