• 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, July 31, 2022

    The Blind Christ (2016)

    Christopher Murray's El Cristo Ciego (The Blind Christ, 2016) leaves Netflix tonight after a 5 year run in which it's garnered almost no attention, even among those who should really be most interested. Rotten Tomatoes only lists a single review, in Spanish. IMDb lists a few more, but only one is in English, by the inestimable John Bleasdale, and even then it has the URL wrong. I checked with friends from Arts and Faith and none of them had seen it or even heard of it, despite it feeling, to me at least, like exactly the kind of film that has always fared well in their Top 100 lists. And tonight it sinks without trace, leaving Netflix unlikely to return and still without an English language DVD release.

    To me this feels like a significant error on the part of those interested in the Bible and film. "Sometimes..." the DJ of my current favourite radio show says as he reflects on a great track from the 80s that failed to make the charts "...we got it wrong". This is a film that deserves better even if people don't like it's conclusions, it's undoubtedly worthy of discussion.

    Despite Murray's English-sounding name, both he and his film are Chilean. Murray, interviewed here by Variety, was born in Santiago and graduated from the Faculty of Communication at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he is now a professor. While lead actor Michael Silva is a professional, most of the rest of the cast are non-professionals, inhabitants of Chile's Pampa del Tamarugal.

    Even without knowing Murray's affiliations, his understanding of Catholicism is unmissable. The title alone, cut down from the working title "Parable of a Blind Christ",1 suggests as much and it's not long into the film before the centrality of Chile's surviving vestiges of Catholicism becomes apparent. The proportion of the population professing Catholicism has dwindled from 70% in 2006,2 to just 42% last year,3 and there's a sense in which, the buildings remain, and desire for something beyond the people's experience remains, but they only rarely coincide. Like the rest of the film's architecture found in desert villages the churches are crumbling, the priests have gone, leaving the remnants of what was, perhaps, once a thriving community. Poverty permeates almost every shot, yet Murray finds a dignified beauty in that, which never detracts from the sense that these are people who are both desperate for something to happen, yet highly sceptical that it ever will. "God abandons and is abandoned".4

    So when a stranger comes visiting there's a mixture of anticipation and detached cynicism. The stranger is Michael,5 the film's central figure, through whose eyes and voice we witness much of what we're shown and told. The film opens with Michael recalling a story, and there are a lot of those, of a boy who asked his friend to nailed his hands, Christ-like, to a tree , while a waited three hours for a sign. "His sacrifice... attracted God's attention". It's unclear, though, who the boy was and what actually happened. Did Michael himself witness a miracle, or is it just a story, a parable, that so reflects Jesus' often enigmatic way of talking?

    Either way when Michael hears that his friend's cousin, Mauricio, has pneumonia,6 he sets off across the desert to see if he can enable a similar piece of divine intervention. Michael's actions carry a high price. His father immediately tells him that he'll disown him if he goes and when regardless he leaves that night, he encounters similar opposition elsewhere.

    His first port of call is to a desert shrine/grotto where people queue up to partake in the ritual. Michael insensitively says "You only have to pray to God. He's inside you" and tells the story of an artisan, who work became revered so much that he created a sculpture of a volcano so spectacular it unintentionally burned down all his work. When he follows this up by saying "Man's work disappears" and pointing out that the shrine's central "figure doesn't walk or talk" he's forcibly moved away from the shrine, tied to a stake and left there. Eventually a local woman, who's tells him she's a carer for her mother, helps liberate him and he comes to her house and helps bathe and care for her mother. 

    Michael makes many similar statements and tells many such stories. "I don't believe in any religion" he says at one point, "God doesn’t talk to the church he talks to the people. When you’re alone the Christ inside you opens his eyes". Michael, despite what people begin to think, is not that he is special, but that "Anyone can heal. Anyone who realizes they come from God". "All you have to do is believe". "If god is with you you shouldn’t be scared." Phrases like this crop up at regular intervals. There's certainty that typifies many young people of his age, that lacks empathy, or at least awareness of the lives that people have lived

    Yet Michael too wavers in his self-assurance. The audacity of his journey and occasional claims such as "I'm going to heal him" at times contrast with his delivery. When a man asks him to pray for him he suddenly seems to lose confidence at the last minute sensing that God has abandoned him. But it's also around this point in the film that Michael develops his most significant relationships in the film, first with the teenaged Bastian and then with his mother. Bastian idolises him; his mother enjoys his company and shares her story (including a shocking story about Bastian's father – "a fucking psychopath". The evening after an impromptu driving lesson, the two sleep together. 

    That night, in the darkness, a young girl calls him " the Chilean Christ and prays with some folk as they gather round a campfire. It's unclear if it's because of this, or because of what happened with Bastian's mother, but either way Michael leaves before sunrise to resume his travels. This time however he faints in the desert and is rescued by another small community.

    Here there appears to be some sort of functioning faith community, albeit one led – in the loosest sense of the word – by an ex-prisoner who had been handed the reins by the last, rapidly departing, official priest. He attempts to convince Michael to look after the village's tiny chapel (though he questions "who am I?") and he completes some baptisms in a nearby stream. When this meets some opposition he tells the story of a hit man released from prison shoots himself only to find love. And so he undertakes the final leg of his journey. 

    At this point I'm going to raise the [SPOILERS] tag as I want to discuss the end of the film, but don't want to spoil it for anyone that's reading this before watching the film.

    [SPOILERS]When he finally arrives it's clear that stories about him have gone ahead of him and people come seeking miracles. Yet he finds Mauricio not only ill, but in a deep state of depression: "Everything’s happened to me. I sometimes wonder why God keeps me alive. I want to be dead. I don’t want To kill myself. I want him to do it." Yet the number of people who have turned up persuade them that Michael should pray and see if Mauricio will be miraculously healed. The resulting scene is reminiscent both of Andrea Mantega's "Lamentation of Christ" (1480) as well as the climactic scene in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955). 

    [SPOILERS]Yet unlike Ordet, when Michael prays, his friend is not healed. Mauricio tries to reassure Michael (and perhaps himself) by insisting "Your company is enough" but Michael leaves. Having been barefoot for most of the film – perhaps a symbol of his spiritual idealistic naïvete – he slips on a pair of boots – a returns to the prisoner-turned-church leader of the penultimate visit on his travels. Now it is a crestfallen Michael who laments "God has abandoned us". 

    [SPOILERS]But now it's the older man's turn to tell a story, one of a girl hadn't slept for 2 weeks. Jesus was brought in, and goes to consult his father, but hears nothing so tells the girl that God is waiting for her in her dreams. The girl slept. Michael describes it as a con, but the older man explains that God "went away so Jesus would fill the emptiness. Then Jesus went away so we would fill the emptiness". He rings a nearby set of altar bells and further clarifies "Faith is the sound that fills the emptiness". He heads up to the roof, but when Michael follows his new friend has disappeared and he has a vision (perhaps) of the sea.

    [SPOILERS]And so Michael returns, first to his father's house, where a shrine has now bee set up, to reconcile to his father, who himself has been impacted. "You brought faith son" he tells him by way of explanation for the way the streets near his house are festooned with night lights. Perhaps these are types of crucifixion and resurrection scenes, the death of self and the new life that follows.

    [SPOILERS]Finally, Michael returns to the boy and his mother, but like so much of the film even this is left unclear, inviting the view to make up their own mind. It's so typical of the film, it's reliance on the vagueities of story, with their multiple interpretations and invitation to participate.

    [END OF SPOILERS]

    What I like about the film is that it consistently refuses to tell you what to think. Is Michael, this "Chilean Christ" a modern version of Christ; Christ himself; a Christ-like figure; or just a deluded, if charismatic, man who has some growing up to do? The character's name, Michael, captures this brilliantly being both the name of God's number two messenger ("angel" means "messenger") and the name Michael itself literally means "Who is like El?" (i.e. God). Or it could just be an ordinary name that remains popular in "Catholic" countries. Did Michael experience the divine when he was younger, or did he just feel like he did after 3 hours in the sun losing blood? How do the people come to believe in him even before he arrives in their village?

    The parallels with the Jesus of the Gospels are certainly there, but interestingly they do not follow the contours of the typical Christ-figure. For one thing there's no cruciform pose, nor are the episodes that are paralleled those that are typically included. The parallels are either with more obscure elements (like Jesus's failure to heal on occasion) or they are more tenuously linked. It raises the question, am I just looking for parallels because of the film's title (The Blind Christ) and how people refer to him within the confines of  the film itself ("The Chilean Christ"). This is, in itself, feels like the medium being the message. It is not just the characters in the story that don't quite know how to pigeonhole Michael, or what to think about the possibility of divine activity.

    And then, of course, there are the stories, which appear regularly throughout the film, often introduced in a way so typical of the Gospels "Let me tell you a story" which chimes with some of the little introductory phrases we find in the synoptics, with their sometimes unclear meaning and their more experiential method of conveying meaning.

    The film is beautifully shot, and moves along at a slow contemplative pace that allows you to savour and immerse yourself in the story. The performances never feel like the work of amateurs, and the genuine concern for the plight of the people of the Pampa del Tamarugal evokes the ghost of neo-realism. Some of the lines of dialogue are hard to unpack and fly past a little too quickly, but that's a minor quibble with a thought provoking, challenging and deeply affecting film.

    ==============

    1 - An old bio from Torino Film Lab used this name about his "forthcoming project".

    2 - According to the "Encuesta Nacional Bicentenario 2016: Religió" survey, available online: http://web.archive.org/web/20171107025524/
    https://encuestabicentenario.uc.cl/wp-content/uploads/2016/
    11/encuesta-bicentenario-2016-religio%cc%81n.pdf
    .

    3 - According to the "Encuesta Nacional Bicentenario 2021: Religió" survey, available online: http://web.archive.org/web/20220121091337/
    https://encuestabicentenario.uc.cl/wp-content//uploads/
    2022/01/Encuesta-Bicentenario-2021-Religion.pdf
    .

    4 - It's the film's leading character, Michael, that says this, but it would have spoiled the flow of the review if I've said this there and I don't have the time at the moment to re-write this to fix that.

    5 - See notes on the use of the name "Michael" in 4th paragraph from the end.

    6 - This is the condition as described in the subtitles earlier in the film, but, once revealed, the actual condition seems to be a skin/wasting disease/infection of the ankle.

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    Saturday, July 23, 2022

    Visions of Ecstasy (1989)

    Visions of Ecstasy (1989), a 20 minute short film by UK director Robert Wingrove, was released the year after the Last Temptation of Christ furore and, as such, was always likely to hit the headlines. Wingrove's film was an exploration of the sexuality of Saint Teresa of Ávila, a subject which had interested numerous artists and writers before and caused various controversies. It became the first and only film to be banned in the UK on grounds of blasphemy. When Wingrove appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that his right to free speech was being unjustly curtailed, they found against him and upheld the ban.

    Eventually, though, it found it's way onto DVD in 2012, then onto YouTube and is currently showing on Mubi. It's not a film I'd particularly sought out as it doesn't really have much to do with the biblical narratives – really it's a work of fantasy and imagination inspired by religious figures.

    Seen 20+ years after all the controversy it's hard to know what to make of it. It's very much a late 80s/early 90s British art film, Jarman-esque you could even say (if you don't have a huge number of frames of reference for this kind of work, which I do not). It could be classified as a silent film – certainly there's no dialogue – but the soundtrack by Siouxsie and the Banshees bassist Steven Severin plays a key role in situating the film beyond the realms of reality.

    There are two main scenes, which are intercut, the consistency of Severin's soundtrack blending-together the multiple joins between the scenes. In the first Teresa and another nun (her psyche) kiss, standing up. In the other Teresa clambers upon Jesus, who is lying prostrate nailed to the cross.

    Many claim that it's pornography, but I don't think that carries much weight. Aside from Visions of Ecstasy's religious angle, it's hard to see how this would gain anything more than a 15 certificate. The whole film consists of erotic material, but two-thirds of the characters keep most of their clothes on and the other has his dignity preserved by a historically implausible loincloth. 

    Wingrove has a history of work that has pushed at the boundaries of what certain parts of society have deemed acceptable. His coffee table book "The Art of the Nasty" featured images from the "video nasties" banned in the UK in 1984. Peter Malone notes how in 1999 Wingrove made Sacred Flesh, about "a convent where the superior had visions of Mary Magdalene and discussed sexuality, the Catholic Church, and its attitudes toward sex".1 He's directed various sexploitation/horror films including three in the Satanic Sluts collection. Back in 2013 his website described his work like this:
    I also direct the odd film, get banned for blasphemy, fight censorship, produce books, attempt to write a novel, run a nightclub, shoot pornography, create imagery, flirt with Satanism and have an unhealthy obsession with political extremes.
    It's hard to imagine now, but back in the late 80s there was a lot of political heat around censorship. Last Temptation was a relatively small episode compared to the extent of the column inches spent frothing about video nasties, the pro-gay movement, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video and whatever else Mary Whitehouse was campaigning about. Wingrove was told by the BBFC that if Jesus had been a statue rather than an actor they would have passed it.2

    Despite the above Wingrove later claimed "Visions didn't set out to offend and the film was about Teresa, it wasn't about Christ. I know how to be blasphemous and offensive and Visions is not what I'd have done had I set out to do that".3

    What I've not really been able to grasp was what Wingrove was intending to do with the film. Looking back, while there are obvious points of comparison with Jarman's The Garden (which came out the following year), it doesn't feel like its cut from the same cloth. The sexuality in Jarman's film feels like it's deeply-felt self-expression. Wingrove's feels more exploitative, not least because Sacred Flesh is typically considered a nunsploitation film. Visions is artfully shot, but I'm not how artistic it is. Perhaps it exists to give erotic pleasure to those who find something sexy in the more visceral/ritualistic elements of Christianity, something which does little for those who don't share that predilection.

    As is often the case in these scenarios, controversial films such as this live on, extending far beyond their actual merit because of the fuss that was made about them. Wingrove says he wasn't deliberately intending to often, and I'm inclined to believe him. Ironically, if Mary Whitehouse and the various other protesters had just let him be, few of us would even have heard about it. 

    ===========
    1 - Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film  (Lanham/Toronto/Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2012), p.245.
    2 - Mentioned in discussion on "Heart Of The Matter - Censorship Debate" (BBC) broadcast in 1996 available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbUz9lbGhrM
    3 - Mentioned in "Banned In The UK - Visions Of Ecstasy" broadcast (08/03/05) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC98HABm5p4

    Sunday, July 10, 2022

    Peter Chattaway is now on Substack


    You don't have to have taken in much of my output, here, in print, on a podcast or on the radio to know I find my friend Peter Chattaway's work invaluable. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Bible films, a unique way of looking at things and I'm forever referencing his work in my own. 

    So you might be interested to know he's started his own Substack site. His previous work will remain at his Patheos blog (though I've already archived all the pieces I reference in my book at web.archive.org), but new material will be appearing on the Substack site at regular intervals.

    Initially this new material is going to focus on The Chosen as well as a new series by the team behind 2014's The Savior called God's Stories which covers stories from the Hebrew Bible in 9 episodes, but I imagine there will be plenty of observations about other new or proposed Bible films/series as well as fresh insights into old ones as well.

    At the moment all of the posts there are free, but the point of Substack is to enable professional writers like Peter to earn from their work without having to resort to constantly bombarding their readers with advertising. So you can already sign up for the crowdfunding options and I imagine it won't be too long before certain posts become exclusive to those choosing one of the "support options".