• 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


    Sunday, December 31, 2023

    Journey to Bethlehem (2023)

    I was in the middle of teaching my "Italian [Cinema] for Beginners" course when I got to see this, which on top of various other commitments (such as the day job) all rather piled up. So unfortunately, now not only is it also several weeks after this film's limited cinematic run, but I'm still going to have to settle for an "initial impressions" type post rather than something approaching a proper review. Apologies, then, if my recollection is a little sketchy.

    Journey to Bethlehem is the first Bible film to get a wide-ish release in the UK since I finished writing my book at the end of 2020. In that time The Chosen has taken over the world; its parent company Angel Studios have debuted a few other biblical films which have only really screened in the US; and Jeymes Samuel has debuted The Book of Clarence at London Film Festival, even though it doesn't go on general release until January. So it was nice to be in a cinema seeing any kind of Bible film, but particularly a Nativity-themed one as I've had a soft spot for them ever since having a chapter on recent incarnations published a few years ago.

    Tonally, Journey to Bethlehem is very different from the most widely seen live action nativity movie, Catherine Hardwicke's 2006 The Nativity Story. The start of Hardwicke's movie tried to present an authentic context for the story: houses were ramshackle; clothing was plain and rough looking; the food and way of life appeared primitive. There was love, life and joy, though it's perhaps fair to say that Hardwicke's attention to detail did not always equate to historical accuracy, and that the movie strayed to become more schmaltzy as the film went on.

    In contrast, Journey to Bethlehem directed by Adam Anders, wears its sense of razzle-dazzle on its sleeve right from the very start. Its a musical, released in the run up to Christmas. Why would we expect anything else? Any sense of painstakingly trying to recreate a credible version of the past is blown out of the water with an opening number brimming with bright colours, a burgeoning cast of singers and dancers, and swirling camerawork and choreography. This feels much closer to Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) – an obvious point of comparison, I suppose – though more optimistic in tone. It's bold and full of energy and unafraid to break convention or to loose itself from the shackles of historical accuracy.

    Yet for all that, Hardwicke's film certainly seems to have been an influence. Particularly in the early scenes, several of the shots and compositions echo Hardwicke's despite the sharp contrast in styles. Shots of Mary and her friends running in the open spaces around the village, or the lighting and tight compositions inside Mary's family home. Then there's both film's use of the Magi/wise men for comic relief. British viewers will enjoy seeing Omid Djalili (The Infidel) and Rizwan Manji (The Dictator) as Melchior and Gaspar respectively and they are funnier than their slightly lame counterparts in the earlier film. 

    Another similar element to Hardwicke's film is the way it uses King Herod, played with great enthusiasm by a slightly over the top Antonio Banderas, this film's biggest star. In both movies he is set-up as the primary antagonist and features early in the film to add a sort of framing narrative to the events that will unfold.

    The way that Herod relates to one of his sons is also similar. The historical Herod had at least nine sons and five daughters so it's striking that he's shown having such a close relationship with just one of them. Here the son is named as Antipater, Herod's first-born (known as Antipater II) who was one of three sons Herod had killed. Indeed, Antipater was executed for plotting to murder his father, the same year that Herod himself died, 4 B.C. – often seen as the latest viable date for the birth of Jesus.

    While most of the characters are given significantly expanded roles from their counterparts in the Gospels, Antipater most benefits from this as his character is not even in the Bible. I can't help wondering if the use of the name Antipater is connected to one of Herod's more famous (surviving!) sons Antipas, who is the Herod who kills John the Baptist in Matthew's Gospel and tries Jesus in Luke's Gospel. Is this possible conflation deliberate? Antipater here is played by Joel Smallbone, one half of Australian Christian pop duo For King + Country along with his brother, and starred as Xerxes in the 2013 film The Book of Esther.

    All of which brings me onto some of the movie's possible musical influences. Antipater's solo "In My Blood" takes his rebellion against his father in a new direction as Antipater begins to realise what a tyrant his father is, and various comments on the song's YouTube video have noted the similarity in style to the US rock band Imagine Dragons. Elsewhere, even I noticed the similarity between Banderas' solo "Good to be King"and "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge (2001).1

    These points of comparison are hardly surprising. Anders made his name as a writer/producer for the music on High School Musical 3 (2008) and the TV series Glee (2009-2015) as well as working on films such as Hannah Montanna (20012) and Captain Underpants (2017). Indeed he has been nominated for for Grammy's for his work on Glee and other productions. So one would naturally expect  Journey to be very youth-orientated. It's both firmly in line with the modern pop-musical, created by an experienced practitioner, and family friendly as befits this kind of Christmas movie. At the same time the translation of that niche into a first-century climate in an arid climate leaves the lively, swirling choreography of "Mary's Getting Married" feeling as close to Bollywood as to Hollywood.

    Interestingly, Anders also has Bible film credentials to his name having worked on both Evan Almighty (2009) and Son of Man (2014) and it's easy to draw the lines between these films – a contemporary take on one of the Bible's most famous stories and a evangelical attempt to retell the story of Jesus set in the first century – and see how he ended up making a film like this.

    Yet Anders is not afraid to tear up the rule book, and he makes several bold decisions, most of which pay off.  The biggest example of this is perhaps the way the story is portrayed of one of attraction and love between Mary and Joseph. This is not exactly novel, but the relationship between the holy couple is most commonly portrayed as being driven by duty and faithfulness to God. Here it works, in no small part due to good performances between Fiona Palomo (Mary) and Milo Manheim (Joseph). There's great chemistry between the pair in the first scene where they meet. Both are unaware of who the other is. Joseph flirts. Mary rebuffs him on grounds of propriety, while still being a bit flirty in return. Incidentally, Manheim is Jewish and I can't help wondering if he is the first Jewish actor to play the role.

    Another of Anders's bold decisions is his portrayal of the angel Gabriel, performed by Black rapper / singer Lecrae. Anders gives him piercing, azure blue eyes, white stripes of make-up on his face, and ditches the traditional white bed-sheet in favour of a costume that captures both ancient battle and modern glamour. The shoulders, chest and arms of Gabriel's garment is covered with glimmering metallic scales that both seem like armour and sequins. As scales they also seems reptilian a reminder that angels are not simply humans with wings, but something more, and that they have often been depicted very differently from humans, an idea at least flirted with in 2021's Midnight Mass.

    This is also reinforced by the way Gabriel towers over Mary during the annunciation scene. While this is primarily due to Lecrae being 6'5" compared to Palomo's 5'3", the fact that the two occupy such different ends of the normal curve for human height gives the impression that he is significantly bigger than the human characters in general. Yet Manheim's Joseph is only two inches shorter than Lecrae and he never remotely seems to tower over Palomo's Mary in the same way. 

    Another of Anders's interesting decisions is conflating the magi and the shepherds such that ultimately the wise men end up in the fields, along with (only a handful of) shepherds witness together the choir of angels arriving to announce Jesus' birth. There's a debate between some New Testament scholars at the moment as to whether Luke is unaware of Matthew's (magi-focused) version of the Nativity story , or whether he is an simply prefers, changes even, Matthew's version to his own with the shepherds. This choice was probably not inspired by that debate (more likely a way to include the shepherds without drawing focus from the magi), but it's interesting to see them combined (brought back together?) in this way.2

    In the grand scheme of things, however, despite the number of changes to the original texts, I would argue they make little difference to the overall thrust of the story. Indeed while there are one or two interesting divergences, the majority come from translating a couple of ancient texts into a modern pop musical designed for a broad audience.

    As such it makes for a pretty decent piece of entertainment that celebrates the story of the first Christmas and honours the original while repackaging it for a contemporary audience in a way that is rarely achieved. Strangely while I love the opening scenes of The Nativity Story, I think I prefer Journey to Bethlehem overall. At least I might find myself more likely to recommend it. Somehow the fact that it is more consistent makes all the difference. Adam Anders knows the kind of film he is trying to make, goes all out for it and delivers a far better movie than I was expecting. 

    Indeed there's such an obvious sense of (if you'll pardon the pun) glee in Anders's handling of the material, particularly given the movie's high production values.3 It's his first feature film as director and his joy at being able to step out of others' shadows and make the film he wants to is palpable. You really get a sense of his love of colour, his costumes; the energetic way he moves and spins his camera to enhance the choreography, combining drone footage with zooms and pans and close-ups; the moments he stops to show off the landscapes of his chosen locations. This feels every inch like a labour of love and it's hard not to get caught up in such obvious enthusiasm. 

    I'm intrigued to see how is received in the longer term. It's already made back its tiny budget,4 but largely passed under the radar first time around. However, word of mouth and the right streaming platform might make a major difference in years to come. Moreover, on the evidence here, Anders has great potential which might cause future fans to revisit it in years to come. I hope so. I think it does a great job of telling these pivotal and important stories in a way that will make them come alive for future (and present) generations.


    1 - That said TikToker @montescreations also finds a similarity, a subversion even, of Albert Hay Malotte's "The Lord's Prayer".

    2 - I'm largely persuaded by the Farrer theory, so think Luke knows Matthew, but not quite sure whether he's accessing a separate tradition or making radical changes to Matthew's.

    3 - This despite a low budget, particularly for a historical movie, of just $6 million.

    4 - As of today, thenumbers.com is reporting a $7,350,569 box-office take worldwide from that $6 million.

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    Saturday, December 16, 2023

    30 Million Hours Watching The Chosen

    Netflix just released its annual viewing statistics for the first time. This is naturally very interesting for stats geeks like me, and naturally it wasn't long until I started seeing the figures for various biblical productions.

    Most strikingly, 2023 saw 30.9 million hours spent watching The Chosen on Netflix, 27.6 million in English, with a further 3 million hours spent viewing the series in Spanish. It's perhaps not surprising that Dallas Jenkins' crowdfunded series, which has been running since 2019, was the highest placed biblical show on the list. 

    The English and Spanish versions are counted separately meaning that the The Chosen's 27.6 million hours viewed puts it in Netflix's 728th position for 2023, but given there are 18,215 productions in the dataset, this is a good performance. Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014) did slightly better, coming in 653rd based on 29.5 million hours – fewer than The Chosen's overall total but higher than the English language version alone.

    Other Bible movies and shows fared less well. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the lowly 1,800,000 hours spent watching Monty Python's Life of Brian (6259th). I'm not sure whether this shows that the film is far less popular overseas than it is in the UK, or that fewer of its traditional fan-base are watching it than before due to it playing the trans character for laughs, or perhaps both. Paul the Apostle of Christ (2018) had 200,000 hours, leaving it at 12,061st place and Davis's Mary Magdalene came in 16,337th and Youssef Chahine's The Emigrant came in at 17,457th despite both gaining 100,000 hours viewed. 

    If Netflix repeat this exercise it'll be interesting to see how The Chosen performs next year, given its fourth series is being released on February 1st. I'm not sure if it will appear on the platform from that date, or whether it will take a little longer.

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