• 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


    Tuesday, October 03, 2023

    Giudetta e Oloferne [Head of a Tyrant], (Fernando Cerchio, 1959)

    Not sure why it's taken me so long to watch and review this one before. I've written quite a lot about Judith films and this is, I think, the longest cinematic adaptation of the deuterocanonical book. And while it's known as Head of A Tyrant in the English speaking world, it's an Italian peplum film shot just after the genre exploded with the release of Le Fatiche di Ercole (Hercules, Pietro Francisci, 1958).

    Judith is played by French actor Isabelle Corey who had starred in both Bob le Flambleur and ...And God Created Woman within a few months of one another in 1956. Opposite her Oloferne is played by Massimo Girotti who was still almost a decade away from his most famous performance as the dad in Pasolini's Teorema (Theorem, 1968) screaming into the deserted landscapes of Mount Etna. 

    It's unusual for a peplum film to rest quite so heavily on its performances, and Corey and Girotto do a good enough job of portraying the tensions both of them feel. On the one hand they feel inextricably pulled towards the other, but she is torn between her love of him and the love of her people, he on the other hand knows she might be trouble but chooses to let her into his heart regardless. 
    The plot deviates a little from the story in the Book of Judith. The Assyrians come seeking to make the Israelites surrender. I like the way the town elders aren't really sure why they're being attacked. That seems to fit with the over-the-topness of Nebuchadnezzar's reaction in the text. Despite the reasonableness of the appeal for surrender,some refuse to accept their gods and there are a few who fire a few arrows towards Holophernes which creates conflict.The Bethulians are ordered to give up the would-be assassins or else they will be destroyed. But rather than besieging the town the Assyrians seem to move in. There's no camping at any rate. One other deviation is that Judith's servant, while an active character in the film, does not accompany Judith there.

    The portrayal of Judith is interesting. In the book she's a beautiful widow and both elements seem to have some bearing on the story. I don't recall if anyone mentions that she is a widow. Instead there's much more emphasis on her being a daughter and sister than on being a widow. Her youthful attractiveness is only emphasised when she ingratiates herself into Holophernes' inner court by performing a sexy Salomé-esque dance. 
    Of course the most famous film version of this story is the 1914 one by D.W. Griffith and this is a very different beast. obviously this adaptation is in colour and with sound, not to mention that for modern audiences the quality of the available print is is far greater here. Yet something else feels very different aside from all that. It's campier, for sure. The shortness of the soldiers skirts confirm that. But perhaps it's because director Fernando Cerchio trusts his material a little more, as if knowing that the possibility of violence creates a more engaging experience than the before and after battle scenes in Griffith's film.
    Cerchio puts that colour to good use, particularly the greens and reds in the interiors which complements the costumes. It reflects both the opposition between Judith and Holophernes, but also their similarities, and that a little of each is found in the other. Yet the gaudiness of these tones, particularly in combination, are also unsettling, putting us ill at ease. There's a slight In a Lonely Place vibe here: the chemistry, the tension between conflicting passions, or between head and heart. 

    Here, though, things are different. Holophernes decides time is up for Judith's people. His costume changes to predominantly black as he hopes to force the citizens to surrender the guilty men. Hers is pure red with both the connotations of sexiness and blood. The physical gap between the two widens. Holophernes starts to feel justified in his decision and then he says "Sometimes we have to do things in spite of ourselves that we wish we didn't have to do" and his spell over Judith is broken.

    The beheading scene is particularly good. The sword almost calling out to her like Macbeth's dagger via a quick zoom. Her pose (above) as she hesitates just for a moment before striking, almost as if wishing he would wake-up and stop her. One more notable moment remains as Judith emerges from the building, shot from behind, and holds aloft Holophernes' head, motionless. A lesser director might have strung out the final battle scene here, but her it's rather half-hearted. The decisive blow has already been struck.

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