• 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


    Monday, August 28, 2023

    Data Visualization: How Does Pasolini Abridge Matthew's Gospel?

    Click here for larger/better resolution version of the image.

    Earlier in the year I was writing a chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) for a book due out next year hopefully about some of the films from the Arts and Faith Top 100

    The words spoken in the film are almost entirely directly taken from Matthew's Gospel, but not all of the Gospel is included. Many sections are omitted or abbreviated. Moreover, Pasolini rearranges the text so some incidents/ speeches occur in a different place in the film. 

    I made a list of which parts of the Gospels appear in various film many years ago (free download) and Jeffrey Staley and Richard Walsh produced similar but more detailed versions of this information for their 2007 book "Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination" (my review) a completely reworked version of which was published last year. 

    However, I wanted to get a better feel for how Pasolini edits, abridges and rearranges the material and while those resources are useful I wanted to get something more immediate. Given my day job is creating data visualisations, I decided to have a quick go with the data about Pasolini's movie. Jeffrey and Richard were kind enough to allow me to use their research and to provide it in an electronic format. 


    My intention was to plot where the cited/dramatised incidents from the text occur in the film. In order to do this I began by tidying and making a number of amendments to their data. There was the odd error and there was one passage where the wording is used twice in the text and I felt the other verse seemed to be where Pasolini would more naturally be drawing from. I also gave a more detailed breakdown of the Sermon on The Mount and where there was only a time stamp for a section of teaching, I added in specific times. This was a challenge as Staley and Walsh had used a different release of the film than any of mine own.

    Visual elements

    One of the things I wanted to examine was how Pasolini handled the five main teaching blocks we find in the text. Scholars have noted how Matthew concentrates Jesus' teaching into five main blocks and for over a century it has been suggested that this is to associate Jesus and the gospel with Moses and the five books of the Torah. So I shaded these areas in grey. I probably should've mentioned that on the diagram itself, but I couldn't quite work out where to do that and, at least at the time, I was hoping to do an improved version.

    From a data visualisation point of view there is one thing that is particularly unusual about this chart which is that "time" is on the y-axis, whereas nearly always time goes on the x-axis. I decided to do it this way for two reasons. Firstly, because in a sense both axes are a variation on time. The y-axis is time through the film, but really the x-axis represents time to. Perhaps we could call it time spent reading through the gospel. It's not linear or regular time, but it's not totally out of keeping with the convention.

    The second reason, however, was that having plotted it both ways this felt like the more natural choice. While the time through the movie might be more regular, the text is more original. It represents a reality that exists before the film comes and rearranges it. The sense of progress is progress through the text. Similarly, I think the various attempts to plot the time sequence in Pulp Fiction (1994) fail because the people producing them don't want to break the rule that time in minutes/should be on the y-axis. But this is a case of "it depends" albeit in a situation where the convention is dominant.

    Notes on style

    Many of the most popular data visualisations use quite lively colours and style. When that works, it really works and it's no surprise that the ones that are able to leverage colour effectively go on to become the most popular. 

    The downside of this, however, is that people think effective / good data visualization has to have lots of colour. That's not true. Indeed many dataviz experts like Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic advise us to "resist the urge to use color for the sake of being colorful" ("Storytelling with Data", p.117). 

    Here, it felt like colour didn't really have a key role to play. I could perhaps emphasise one particular section, or assign different colours to the type of material, and perhaps that's a job for a future iteration of the visual, perhaps one that is being presented. 

    Instead, I decided to lean in to the lack of colour. The film is of course magnificently and proudly black and white (if you have the colourised abomination you should destroy it before it burns out your eyes and shrivels your soul). Moreover regardless of the excesses appearing on screen, Pasolini kept his titles sparse and plain. 

    So I stuck with black and white, or rather black and light grey. The off-white background is the same hue featured in Pasolini's opening credits, and I used the Galatia SIL font as this seemed like the closest approximation to Pasolini's original font that I could find for free. I'm weighing up doing a couple of other version of these and I'm thinking of doing those using colour and a more modern font. But here, I've essentially tried to reproduce the film's simple aesthetic. It's part of what makes the film so powerful.


    As I've mentioned above I'm still wondering about doing a more advanced version of the above. Ideally I would have liked it to be possible to hover over the dots and see the name and reference to each incident. In terms of tools I tend to use Power BI, but here I used Excel, partly because I didn't think anyone would look at it unless they already had a Power BI account and also because Power Bi doesn't let you use custom fonts. There are a couple of ways round the latter, but the former is a real deal breaker. 

    Annoyingly, though, while the Excel file version of this document does allow you to see some info as a tool-tip, you can't customise it, the way you can in PowerBi. So maybe I'll return to this data if I ever get around to picking up Tableau or Deneb or R or something where I can make the interactivity show online.

    The other limitation is that the quality is not as high as I'd hope. The higher quality version of this image is just over 800 by 900 pixels, but even then the dots look a little pixely in places. I also need to find somewhere to put that note about the darker grey strips being the author's five teaching blocks.

    Did it work?

    The main point I make about all this in the essay is that whereas Jesus has five chunks of teaching, Pasolini essentially reduces this down to two, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and the Olivet discourse (Matt 23-25). However this visualisation doesn't really bear this out. While both sections feel like they take a long time, in reality they only take 5½ and 6½ minutes respectively, only 10% of the film combined. Plus while Pasolini's second discourse includes almost every word from chapter 23, he omits most of 24-25.

    This move from five to two seems really clear from viewing the film, so it's arguably a bit of a failure of the graph that it doesn't really bring that out. In a future version I'd want to itemise the seven woes a bit more. That would create more presence on the chart, but I don't think it will solve the problem. I need to think a bit more about that  – it's why this visualisation won't be appearing in my chapter on it. 

    That said, though, the point of the visual wasn't to reinforce a point I already felt comes through strongly in the film, it was to give me much more of a feel of how Pasolini jumps about in and abridges his source. And in that sense I think it really helps. For example, even with the briefest glance it's clear that Pasolini does not adopt a linear-but-abridged approach to the text. He moves material around. Much easier to see here than by sifting through a list of chapters and verses. I'm considering doing another one of these for The Jesus Film (1979) which takes a similar approach to Luke's gospel. I have no idea whether it jumps around or not.

    There are other benefits. One point I found particularly interesting, is to see what happened to Matthew's second discourse. Pasolini essentially merges it into part of his calling of the disciples sequence. It's a clever move because he manages to not only preserve the "revolutionary" way Matthew has Jesus make a single clear proposition, but also maintain a plausible dramatic narrative in terms of Jesus' growing support. He calls his men, and teaches them, before turning up after just his baptism to a huge crowd on the top of a mountain.

    It also demonstrates that Pasolini jumps back four times in the film, but for decreasing amount of time and material on each subsequent occasion. Also noticeable that the birth and Passion narratives take place in completely straight-forward fashion. It's only the ministry where some things change. But it's also arguable that what Pasolini is doing is jumping forward, rather than backwards. I might need to think a bit more about that.

    Over to you

    Having not only gone to the effort of producing this, I've now spent quite a while creating this blog post about it as well. So needless to say I'd love it not to be all in vain. So feel free to like and share and use if you're using it in classes. Please just keep the attribution to Staley and Walsh as well as mentioning me as its originator.

    More importantly do you have any observations that come from the chart? If so, I'd love to hear them. Please put something in the comments below.

    Labels: , ,

    Monday, August 21, 2023

    Wilde Salomé (2013)

    I've wanted to see Al Pacino's Salomé production for many years despite not being entirely sure what it was. There were seeming two entries on IMDb that seemed relevant and while things are a little clearer there now, originally it was confusing. Was this a filmed play, or a (more standard movie); or was it a documentary. It briefly popped up on Amazon Prime so I bookmarked it to come back to. And then it disappeared. 

    Fortunately, after an absence of 2 or so years (in the UK at least) it's back on Prime again to rent or buy on Amazon. So, ever trying to learn from past mistakes, I snapped it up, watched it and decided I should probably get some initial thoughts down before it disappears again.

    It turns out that what you are buying is in two distinct entities run into one. Firstly there is a documentary called Wilde Salomé from 2011. This is then immediately followed by a filmed version of the play which sits part way between a filmed play and a film. I'll offer a few thoughts on the latter in a future post as it's more the typical focus of this blog, but for now here are a few thoughts on the documentary


    Wilde Salomé is a 90 minute documentary which tracks Pacino's journey in adapting Oscar Wilde's famous play Salomé. Apparently the project has been a long term passion project for Pacino and he tells his story as he tours round various key locations in Wilde's lifetime, in Ireland, the US and in the UK. We also hear from a number of other people Pacino talks to, ranging from one of Wilde's descendants and people like Bono, through to a literal man on the street outside one of Wilde's British homes who, despite being a local resident, had no idea of the location's significance prior to bumping into Al Pacino blocking the pavement there. There's also some footage from Israel/Palestine.

    The travelogue footage is interspersed with extensive excerpts from the filmed version of the play, as well as lots of behind the scenes footage. Pacino trying to bring the production together, rehearsals, passionate discussions about the way a certain aspect should be handled. It emerges that there are three levels to the project which are all being produced in the same five days period: the stage play, which is being performed in from of a paying audience; a separate filmed version of the play which is being shot in the same few days, but entirely separately from the theatrical version; and the documentary itself. 

    There are certainly some interesting details, particularly for those, who like me, can recall only a little about Wilde and are never sure how much of it is true and how much is fiction from productions ranging from comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) to more serious biopics like Wilde (1997) starring Blackadder alumnus Stephen Fry.

    The details of Wilde's final years, particularly those of his incarceration in a hard labour prison are pretty horrifying and the more editorial take on "Bosie", is welcome. I picture him as Jude Law, forget his father's codifying of the rules of boxing and can never recall a great deal else.

    Richard Strauss's famous operatic adaptation also gets a mention here -- For some strange reason I struggle to think of Strauss's work as coming after Wilde's. He, or at least his opera, somehow seems like a much more established / accepted work in terms of the British establishment. 

    While there are I'd really have liked a decent discussion of other filmed versions of the play or story. Pacino mentioned first seeing the Steven Berkhoff version in the late 1990s, and there's a little footage from that, but only regarding how it inspired him. And then there's footage from an early silent version and another adaptation shot in the Mojave desert. Fine if you want to skip the 1953 Rita Heyworth version (which not only steers clear of Wilde's play and drops the accent on the "e", but also changes Salome into a heroine who thinks she's dancing to save John the Baptist), but it would be nice to hear his thoughts on the 1922 Nazimova version or Ken Russell's The Last Dance (1988).  Actually I should get round to reviewing that one myself...

    All in all, there are certainly some points of interest, and it does flesh out Pacino's filmed version of the play which follows, but it's not as interesting as might be hoped, partly because, for all Pacino's charisma and enthusiasm, there's very little discipline. Pet passions like this need reigning in and this is hard to do when the obsessive fan making the project is one of Hollywood's biggest ever stars. It's not hard to imagine -- not least seeing the direct way with which Pacino talks to his colleagues -- that no-one really stood up to him to reign him in a bit. 

    But hey, I'm hardly one to talk. And just as I've enjoyed carving out a bit of space on the internet to let my pet passion ramble on untethered, then why shouldn't he? And for a making-of style documentary for a film about strong, irresistible, irrational passions, perhaps that's rather appropriate.  


    Saturday, August 12, 2023

    Jesus' Humour in Bible Movies

    I got a question from a friend asking if I knew of any clips of "Jesus laughing or being funny in any Jesus films" and if seemed like it might be an interesting subject for a blog post. They mentioned The Chosen and I agree it's an obvious starting place, because Jesus' sense of humour is so much more fully developed in that series than any other production that I'm aware of. So maybe we can take that as read, or maybe we'll just return to Jesus' sense of humour in The Chosen because it's quite a topic in itself. Feel free to post any good examples in the comments.

    The Comedy Jesus Films

    An obvious place to start is comedies which feature Jesus as a character. However, in most of the obvious examples, Jesus is played straight, it's the antics around him where characters might be said to joke; or it's the fact that a non-joking Jesus is in an unusual context that provides the humour.

    Take for example Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way (1969). Jesus appears a few times. The first time he is thinking of shaving his beard off. It's a funny scene, but the joke is about quirky juxtaposition. Moments later Jesus is running late – again, a normal element of being human that somehow feels at odds with how Jesus is traditionally portrayed

    I covered 9 films that could be classed as comedic in my book, but most of them were based on the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless only one of them was written in that style of humour where one of the characters provides humour by saying intentionally funny things (e.g. Jerry in Seinfeld or Chandler in Friends), Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998). Here the 'funny' character is Satan even though Jesus (who has come to judge the living and the dead) remains the 'hero', though much of the humour comes from the quirky and surreal world to which Jesus returns.

    Indeed the existing comedy Bible movies are mostly written in that style where the characters themselves play things straight despite the fact they exist in a funny / absurd world / situation or they are the absurd ones. None of these films play Jesus as absurd, though I've not seen much of Black Jesus (2014-19) yet.

    Perhaps the most obvious example of the absurd universe model is the most famous comedic Bible Film Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Here Jesus only appears briefly at the start delivering the Sermon on the Mount in traditional fashion. The humour comes from the absurd conversations that happen at the edges of the crowd and then as the film pans out further we discover Jesus may very well be the only sane character in the entire character.

    The other film that might qualify as a comedy Jesus film is Get Some Money (2017) directed by Biko Nyongesa. The original short film of the same name was billed as a comedy about Judas' suicide. As someone not really familiar with a Kenyan sense of humour I found it difficult to relate to the humour – suicide tends not to be played for laughs in Anglo-American culture. Some bits were still amusing though again Jesus himself was not making jokes or wry observations.

    Lastly there's Jesus of Montreal (1989) which, as it is often observed, is not really a Jesus film at all as much as a film about Jesus which leans heavily on allegory. Interestingly Daniel, the character in the film who is portraying Jesus in a play, does have a sense of humour, but that's no something that carries over to his performance of Jesus. So the Christ-figure is funny, but not the Jesus figure. Indeed many of the classic Christ-figure films give their hero a sense of humour, but I'm going to resist going off on that tangent.

    In short, while several films are funny about Jesus, none of those really portray Jesus as having a sense of humour. However, there are several of the more traditional-style Jesus films which do give Jesus a sense of humour, so lets turn to them now.

    Son of Man (1969) 

    Dennis Potter's play, Son of Man was groundbreaking in so many ways, but it was when Gareth Davies adapted it for the BBC that elements of Jesus' humour began to emerge. The actor Davies picked as his lead – Colin Blakely – gives an electric performance as Jesus and his version of the Sermon on the Mount is a particular highlight. There are a few changes to the script. I'm not sure whether Potter rewrote it for the television, or if that was down to Davies, or just the way Blakely delivered the scene. Perhaps a combination of the three, but it's there that a couple of little humorous interjections emerge. The potential is there in Potter's words, but Blakely injects the scene with the impression that not only does his Jesus realise humour is a useful tool, but that he is clearly revelling in using it. "It's easy to love those who love you" says Blakely with perfect comic timing "Why even the tax collector can do that". Later, he admits it would hurt were someone to strike you on the cheek and when Brian Blessed's Peter adds "Yes, especially if I were to do it Master!", Jesus roars with laughter along with everyone else. The signs of Jesus' sense of humour are brief, but very much there.

    The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    Scorsese's interpretation of the story was different in so many ways from its predecessors that it's hardly a surprise that humour is one of the elements of Jesus' humanity (though perhaps it's a divine characteristic too) which it draws out. In some ways this is surprising as Jesus tends to be very intense and serious in this movie. The first flicker of a sense of humour here occurs in the stoning scene. Jesus is challenging the crowd about their own sin. When Zebedee steps forward claiming he's not done anything wrong, Jesus asks him his mistresses' name. It's meant rhetorically, but when another member of the crowd shouts out "Judith", Jesus raises his eyebrow wryly. At a recent screening, which I introduced, the audience laughed at that moment. 

    Shortly afterwards the disciples arrive at the Wedding at Cana, which Nathaniel (whose cousin is getting married) is helping out with. When the wine runs out Jesus asks what is in the nearby jars. Nathaniel informs him that they're only water – he filled them himself. Jesus suggests he check anyway. Nathaniel is insistent, but eventually gives way, only to discover they are now filled with wine. Nathaniel stares back at Jesus open mouthed. Jesus – in what has become a much used meme, raises his glass with an told-you-so smile.

    There's not much more to it than that, but certainly this was a development, and moreover it's perhaps the only moment in any Jesus production prior to The Chosen where I smile at Jesus' sense of humour. 

    The Visual Bible: Matthew (1994)

    If Scorsese's introduction of a Jesus with a sense of humour was a bit of an innovation then Regardt van den Bergh's Matthew was a revolution. Bruce Marchiano received instruction from his director to play Jesus as a "Man of Joy" (p.72) and inspiration from an 8 year old friend who remarked "Well I sure hope he smiles a lot because Jesus in the other Jesus movies never smiled, and I know that Jesus smiles all the time". Marchiano certainly delivered on that guidance, giving the most joyful, smiley portrayal of Jesus imaginable. Even the passages where it's hard to image Jesus smiling, Marchiano keeps going, for example the 7 woes of Matt 23. He later reflected that "Jesus smiled bigger and laughed heartier than any human being who's ever walked the planet". While it occasionally rankles with an old curmudgeon like me, many have found it life-changing.

    But smiling and laughing are not the same as "being funny" and here van den Bergh and Marchiano were limited by the former's decision to stick to a word for word adaptation of Matthew's text. Yet while Matthew is not the kind of witty text that will instantly have you in stitches, it's important to remember even the deliberate examples of wit we do have from that period do not seem particularly funny to us today. 

    In that context there are one or two moments of humour in Matthew that feel not out of place in that context and the film certainly tries to stress the point that this is meant to be humorous. The most memorable is when it comes to Matt 7:3-5 ("How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?"). This bit of comic exaggeration often cited as an example of humour in the Bible and, as if to underline the point, Marchiano picks up a big piece of wood and holds it against his eye as he delivers the line. It's not the greatest piece of comic delivery, but it does, at least, make the point. 

    Jesus (1999)

    Roger Young's miniseries tries, as much as any previous Jesus film, so show Jesus having a laugh. There's the moment when he and his disciples rush to a water point, desperate for a drink and he playfully splashes them with the water and another similar moment later on. 

    Perhaps the most memorable scene in this respect is when some street performers seek to get the crowd – which Jesus is part of – to dance. Jesus (played by a youthful Jeremy Sisto) is very keen and jumps right up. Thomas (of course!) is less entranced and so Jesus seeks to coax him out of his shell a bit. It plays as funny, but in real life I would hate it if someone tried this. Jesus! You don't need my compliance to validate your own joy at dancing.

    Elsewhere Jesus' style of preaching is more open than in many films. When he preaches he doesn't just get the kind of questions we find in the Bible, also gets heckled, and his reaction is to laugh along. Jesus himself doesn't tell jokes in this film, but he certainly is shown to have a good sense of humour.

    More recent productions

    All of these examples are from the twentieth century. Are there any, more-recent examples? Casting my mind back, I remember Jesus being generally cheery and good natured in films such as The Miracle Maker (2000) and Risen (2016) and perhaps even a little self-depricating in such a way as to suggest he doesn't take himself too seriously. But neither contain laughter, humour or jokes. Meanwhile 2006's Color of the Cross, Son of God (2014), Killing Jesus (2015) and Last Days in the Desert (2016) probably reversed the general trend of getting Jesus to lighten up a bit from his earlier silver screen outings, and presented him as a more serious figure. Likewise other non-English language efforts such as Shanti Sandesham (2004),  Jezile (Son of Man, 2006), Su re (2012) and The Savior (2014) also have a more serious-minded approach. There is are a couple of exceptions and like Son of Man (1969) above, both are from British television...

    The Second Coming (2003)

    In 2003 Christopher Ecclestone, the (then) future Doctor Who, starred as the son of God come back to earth as a working class Mancunian. Northern humour was very much part of the mix. In one scene as he speaks to a vast crown he reminds them of scientific breakthroughs with potentially apocalyptic consequences and asks  "Do you think you're reading for that much power?...You lot?....You cheeky bastards!" 

    The line that most stays with me comes from the end of the first episode. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it (it's currently on the Internet Archive), but even twenty years after watching it I could remember the episode's final line. "Well, maybe two".

    Second Coming is far from a conventional Jesus film, and it's notable that this was an ITV production rather than something from the BBC. This is very much a Jesus who jokes, even if he's arguably more intense than many of the others. Moreover this is a Jesus who jokes and uses humour, but doesn't really smile and laugh that much (and when he does it's slightly unnerving).

    The Passion (2008)

    The Passion first broadcast by the BBC in 2008 contains a few humorous notes in its very first scene. Jesus and the disciples are attempting to buy a donkey and its colt and when their business is done the seller realises who Jesus is. Jesus asks him what he's heard and when the seller mentions overthrowing the Romans Jesus replies "Does this look like an army...apart from John and James". Later Jesus uses sleight of hand to inject a bit of humour into "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" and also to turn some of his questioners cynicism back onto them. 

    This is also a Jesus who smiles and laughs as well. But the series is also keen to show those around Jesus laughing at the things he says, or more to the point how he says it. When Jesus is told "the elders instruct us" he counters "and you must listen to what they say...just don't do what they do". As Jesus, Joseph Mawle's delivery is good hear, his relaxed delivery and timing make many lines that read straight in the Gospels become funny. That is also due to Frank Deasy's script which rephrases the words from the Gospels making them more lively and immediate.

    Over to you

    That's all of the best examples I can think of, having mulled over this for a week or so. Did I miss any? If so, let me know in the comments below.

    Labels: , , , , ,

    Friday, August 04, 2023

    My Film Commentary for Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew

    For most of this year I've been writing a chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964). The chapter is due to go in a book celebrating the Arts and Faith Top 100 “Spiritually Significant” films lists due out sometime 2024-25. I'll post details on that in due course but keep an eye out for it. It's current title is "The Soul of Cinema: Essays on Arts & Faith’s Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films".

    In honesty, that project may have finished me as a writer. There has been just so much written about Pasolini, and the concepts he wrestles with and introduces as an artist are not easy to get one's head around that it was hugely challenging marshalling all the sources and doing them justice, and then trying to cram it down to a semi-reasonable word count (I think mine might be the longest chapter in the book. I'm grateful to the book's editor and brains behind the project, Ken Morefield, for his flexibility & support on that. 

    Having done all that I thought it might be fun to put that knowledge to good use in other contexts. So I was interviewed about the film by John Bleasdale for his "Cinema Italia" podcast which you can get from Acast | Apple | Spotify

    So I've also recorded this feature length commentary track. Here you get to watch the whole film while I discuss various aspects about it's production, meaning, performers, music, etc. It's like a director's commentary, only I'm obviously not the director. The beauty of doing this is that I've added subtitles so you can still follow what's happening. And it's 720px so the visual quality should be pretty decent. Watch the video here.

    It's difficult to know how this will land. I'm an avid consumer of YouTube, but have had quite mixed results even with my own limited content. My most watched video is 3 seconds of John Inman going "I'm free", followed by Harry Dean Stanton singing "Ain't No Grave" in Cool Hand Luke. But in terms of Bible Films material I don't really know why my most successful video comprising of clips from 6 Classic Era Jesus Films has currently got 26,000 views, while one showing clips from 5 Silent Jesus Films has only 345. Similarly I would never have predicted that around 7,000 people would watch my clip from obscure Sardinian Jesus film Su re (2012), but only 64 would watch the pivotal clip from the far better known Jesus of Montreal (1989).

    I suspect this is the least appealing of all of them – after all not many people will have the time to sit and watch/listen to me for over two hours. But I do hope those that do find it an enriching and rewarding experience. I should add that I don't make a penny of these videos, so hopefully there won't be too many ads for household gadgets at crucial moments.


    Labels: , ,