• 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, January 28, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e01

    I was hoping, as I sat down to watch this episode, that it might be the kind that I could watch, find a couple of interesting things to say and then dash off a few quick words, content to be moving towards the new season while it still might be fresh. But alas, no. It turns out that this is one of those episodes about which there really is lots to say, partly down to my own quirky interests, partly down to things that I have read fans of the chosen writing about (shout out to anyone from any of The Chosen Facebook forums I've been visiting recently).

    Writing the Gospels

    The episode starts with a number of the leading characters seated and speaking directly to camera. Indeed the first few shots here have an almost documentary vox pops feel about them, like Peter, or Mary Magdalene are experts being consulted by a enquiring, neutral mind. But eventually the shots edge out and we realise they're speaking to a person, not just a camera, who is writing things down, rather than video recording them.

    It's clear that, these shots are set several years after we last left these characters. Peter's beard is a little greyer, as is Thomas' hair and there's talk about them missing Jesus, even while they are still preaching his message. Moreover, the actor playing Big James has changed completely (OK, we've already told that's just a casting change) and one or two of the characters are now displaying large beards.

    One particularly comical such new beard is being sported by Matthew. Matthew relays his details with typically meticulous. "It doesn't need to be precise" interrupts his interrogator. "Why wouldn't it need to be precise...mine will be precise" he says and while at first it seems he simply just means the account that he's giving then and there, to this as yet unseen character, the implication is that he is actually thinking of the Gospel that he has already begun planning. Next up is Mary, whom the interviewer calls "mother" and our growing suspicions are confirmed. It's John, researching his Gospel.

    Then the dialogues begin to flow, in typically Chosen-esque fashion, dripping in traditional belief into contemporary dialogue. John explains he's "not in a hurry to write a whole book", but that he just wants "to get the eye witness stories now. While we're together." "Isn't Matthew going to write something?" Mary counters. "He's only writing about what he saw and about what Jesus told him directly, but I was there for things that Matthew doesn't know about. I was in his inmost circle. He loved me."

    "I prefer to treasure the things in my heart" Mary says recalling Luke 2:19. "You know that if you tried to write every single thing he did, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." "Hmm" says John "a disclaimer. That's good. I'm going to say that... If I do not write these things down they will be lost to history." (see John 21:25)

    This all feels like a certain line has been drawn in the sand. Up to this point the focus has been on the person of Jesus – even if that aim has been furthered by inventing an entire scene, or even a whole episode. This sequence, though, feels like the first time the series has really tried to assert an evangelical apologetic on its audience. The reliability of the Gospels is being bolstered by presenting them as eye-witness accounts from two of his closest followers. 

    Admittedly this is the traditional view and probably the one that it most common among regular churchgoers. Yet the evidence for it is fairly flimsy. Matthew may have been an eye-witness, but far from the impression given here, he relied on Mark's Gospel for the majority of his account. Neither book identifies their author.Yet there's a certain romance to the idea of Matthew having "left everything behind him except one thing – his pen" [1] and John enigmatically referring to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as he wrote his Gospel. It plays well in sermons and in the imagination. Indeed variations on these traditions show up in numerous Jesus films and the occasional other New Testament story as well.

    What I do find unusual, though, is that often people who otherwise tend to favour a sola scriptura approach so readily abandon that position when it comes to the authorship of the Gospels. Suddenly what a few early church fathers say about the Gospels' authors seems to outweigh the internal evidence of the texts themselves.

    But I digress. While this opening sequence is a little heavy-handed, it's done with the series' trademark humour and in-jokes for those who know the text well, and it's certainly an interesting way to start the new season.

    Sons of Thunder

    Of course, the introduction with John is not just a device to kick off the whole series, but also an introduction to the episode – titled Thunder – which will give a particular focus to John and his brother James. Indeed it's clear from the opening sequence that it takes place in 44AD, shortly after James' death. "Mother" Mary expresses her concern for John telling him he "needs to mourn big James" and so the sequence forms something of a coda to James' life following Jesus. 

    The change in actor (after Behrad Tarazi left to star in Legends of Tomorrow) is a little unfortunate at this point, but it does, at least, form a good way for us to get acquainted with Abe Bueno-Jallad in the role and for him to establish himself in the role.

    But the initial focus here is John (George Xanthis). The conversation suggests that even though James is about to learn an important lesson in humility, even by 44AD he still sees himself as more important than the others. Of course, on the one hand this aligns with the Gospel of John's use of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and the typical association of that figure with John son of Zebedee. What really interested me, though, is the way that Mary challenges this as objective truth. When John says "I was in his inmost circle. He loved me." she counters with "he loved all of you. You just feel the need to talk about it more often".

    Just as the opening sequence charts the end of the sons of thunder, so its closing scenes show us how (The Chosen) the brothers got their nickname. Jesus and his followers are still in Samaria after the closing scenes of season one. Photina (the woman the well from John 4) has told the whole village about her encounter with Jesus, so he is spending a few days meeting people, preaching to crowds and evading the disciples attempts to keep tracks on him. 

    Nevertheless, this is Samaria and the episode repeatedly reminds us that Jews and Samaritans hate each other. There are racial tensions, xenophobic grumbling and minor conflicts all culminating in a scene where Samaritans, throw stones, verbally abuse and spit at Jesus, James and John. Enraged, the sons of Zebedee tell Jesus that their abusers "deserve to have bolts of lightning rain down and incinerate them... fire from the heavens".

    Instead Jesus turns his 'fire' on James and John, rebuking them surprisingly harshly for their outburst. "...because a few people, from a region you don't like, were mean to you. That they're not worthy? What? You're so much better? You're more worthy? Well let me tell you something, you're not!". The two hang their heads in shame and apologise. 

    There's a brief silence and then finally Jesus breaks the tension with humour. "You wanted to use the power of God to bring down fire to burn these people up?" He puts his arms around them, jokes again and says "that's what I'm going to call you from now on. James and John, the sons of thunder".


    This is far from the only moment of humour in this episode. Indeed when I recently asked a group of The Chosen's fans what their favourite moments of humour from this series were, two of the most frequently cited moments came from this very episode.

    It starts early on with those interviews. Part way through Andrew's recollection about first encountering Jesus, the frame extends a little as Peter clarifies that when Andrew says "John" he means "crazy John" (i.e. John the Baptist). Later we see James and John ploughing a field and one of them does an impression of Jesus (The only other time I can recall this is G.W. Bailey's character in Roger Young's 1999 Jesus).

    There's already some humour in the disciples interactions with each other, particularly the bickering with one another and the jostling for position as to who is the greatest

    But the two incidents that were repeatedly cited were both things Jesus says. The first takes place just after Jesus has praised James and John for how well they have ploughed the field. It turns out the field is owned by Melech, an impoverished Samaritan friend of Photina. Jesus turns up with his friends and some food and invites himself to dinner.

    The conversation continues and Melech eventually confesses to having beaten up a Jew on the road to Samaria. As Melech's account continues it becomes apparent that his story is part of the Parable of the  Good Samaritan. He was one of the men who robbed the story's victim on the road. Personally even in my most conservative days I've never really thought of the parable as a true story. To me it's a fable, a story with a point. So it's strange to see it literalised with actual robbers. Moreover Jesus is able to reassure a guilt-laden Melech (who is literally and emotionally broken by the incident) that the man did not die. "I promise you. He did not die". The link between Melech's physical and emotional problems is emphasised further when Melech wakes up the next day to find his leg  has been healed.

    I'm in two minds about the use of the Good Samaritan story here. On the one hand it seems a bit of a waste to have one of Jesus' best-known miracles reduced to being reportage. Over the centuries, the story's inspired a multitude of selfless acts of kindness and compassion and the absence of this aspect of it seems a bit of a waste. Yet, on the other hand I like the way Dallas Jenkins and his co-writers Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson have found a new angle on the parable by telling it from the thieves' perspective. Interestingly Jesus ends up by tying it in with another parable, that of the lost sheep – a story he has already drawn out with a crowd earlier in the day.

    Anyway, less than a minute after Melech's confession has finished Jesus and the disciples get up to leave before it gets to late and Jesus says in deadpan fashion "We never know what sort of men may lay in wait along the side of the road". Then there's a pause. Melech looks crestfallen momentarily onlky for Jesus to crack a smile and asks "Too soon?"

    The second of these scenes occurs in the scene that immediately follows as Jesus and his followers arrive at Photina's house. Welcoming them in, Photina's faux-curmudgeonly husband informs them "One of the rooms is haunted, by my dead grandmother". "Ooh" says Jesus, with a hint of excitement. "I'll take that one!" It's one of those lines that I'm sure some of the show's opponents criticise, but again it's in line with the show's decision to portray Jesus as both the joker of the pack and its leader – a difficult path to tread.

    Thomas and his Father-in-law

    Another subplot in this episode involves Thomas, his fiancée/wife (Ramah) and his (would be?) father in law Kafni. Thomas was not with the disciples when they left for Samaria, indeed we have not seen him since season 1 episode 5 where he was the caterer for the Wedding at Cana. However, he's now decided – at last – that he does want to follow Jesus and so he, Ramah and Kafni head off to find Jesus in a remote spot in Samaria.

    As with Thomas' previous appearance, again we're treated with more telegraphing of his forthcoming and infamous doubt. This time Thomas is caught in indecision about his route. It does seem a bit one-dimensional, but I suppose there is a precedent for this in John's Gospel. There Thomas only opens his mouth three times and on each occasion he seems to put his foot in it.

    Aside from the best -known example we also get John 11:16 where Thomas (bravely) blurts out to his friends "Let us also go, that we may die with him" moments after Jesus has explained (admittedly confusingly) that he's not at risk of getting stoned. Then, three chapters later, he's at it again in John 14:4, completely failing to spot a metaphor when Jesus uses one. (Given my comments about this episode's use of the Good Samaritan, he's perhaps in good company).

    In the three other Gospels Thomas is just one of the unremarkable disciples who make up the numbers. It's only in John that we find him presented as a foolish doubter. This has led some scholars to suggest that this is because the author of John's Gospel is trying to stem the growth of the brand of Christianity that gave us the Gospel of Thomas and so includes these episodes to cast doubt on their key apostle. I only mention this because, in a way, the series perhaps intends to do this too. Those occasional moments when it slips into poorly concealed apologetics (such as the opening sequence, here) all remind us that The Chosen is not intended as simply entertainment, but that, like John 20:31 is created to persuade people to follow Jesus.

    Having said all that, this episode does bring us Kafni (Thomas' father-in-law, of sorts), here highly concerned who is daughter is choosing to follow. There's two things I particularly liked about Kafni's scenes here, and this is the only episode in which he features.

    The first occurs as he, Ramah and Thomas arrive in Samaria Jesus welcomes and suggest they stay the night so he and Kafni can talk in the morning. When Kafni agrees Jesus thanks him, grins and puts a hand on his shoulder. It's just a brief moment but as Jesus does this, Kani just gives a side eye down to Jesus' hand on his shoulder.

    I guess like this because Jesus has already praised Kafni for doing his due diligence about who his daughter drops everything to follow. So Kafni's more reserved nature is legitimised as a good part of his character. Moreover, Jesus is just a bit over-familiar here. I'm fascinated as to what led to this reaction being included. Perhaps I'm just over-analysing it (he says 2½ thousand words into a single episode...) but it seems just a tiny bit against the grain. 

    But what I particularly like is that while Kafni has two reasonable, rational discussions with Jesus, he ultimately doesn't decide to follow him. That might seem a small thing, but Jesus films (and creative adaptations of the Gospels in general) have almost unanimously failed to give us neutral Jewish characters. In most Bible movies Jewish characters either become followers of Jesus, or they are close-minded, blinded by religion and become his opponents. Yet Judea and Galilee were full of such characters. 5000 men (plus women and children) may have been fed that day, but only 120 gathered even after he had been resurrected. 

    That portrayal of the Jewish people who didn't decide to follow Jesus being portrayed as being driven by hatred or other irrational motives have over the centuries, led to antisemitism, particularly given that its these same characters who later become responsible for having Jesus killed. If you're not aware of how church history is riddled with examples of Jewish people being cast as Christ killers and attacked for it, you should really read up on it. 

    So this is exactly the kind of scene that it's really good to see The Chosen include. Kafni is not a future Christian, but he's also not blinded by hate. He's just a diligent father who, for various reasons, hangs onto his own religion rather than deciding to follow Jesus.

    Final Points

    The final section of this film finds Jesus and his followers arriving at the Samaritan place of worship, following the invitation from the village's religious leader. We see the men and women moving to separate sides of the "synagogue" which apparently – and contrary to popular belief – there isn't really much evidence for, certainly not within Jewish synagogues.

    Anyway the final moments of that opening sequence are now about to come to fruition. There John ends the sequence musing with Mary about how to begin his account. He wants to go back beyond Abraham, perhaps even further than Adam, but he's not sure which. And then Jesus stands up and reads from Genesis (one of the books that various Jewish groups and Samaritans agreed was scripture) and the account of creation.

    As he does so the scenes flick between John smiling / crying as he begins to realise that Jesus is part of the Godhead and the future John who realises this is how he should start his own narrative. And as Jesus reads out bits from Genesis 1 we see the John from 44BC narrating  the opening from John 1. It's completely ahistorical, in multiple sense, but it's a deft way to tie up the episode and bring the first entry in the new season to an emotional climax.


    1 - Barclay, William (1956) The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1, Edinburgh: St Andrew's Press. Fully revise, third edition (2001), p.6.


    Tuesday, January 09, 2024

    La Fille de Jephté (Jephthah's Daughter, Henri Andréani, 1913)

    Rob Kranz was kind enough to let me know that copy of Pathé's 1913 film La Fille de Jephté (Jephthah's Daughter, 1913) is available on YouTube. It's not actually the full version, which according to the old Pathé archive site ran to 405m (~30 minutes), but the Pathé Baby version which (on YouTube) runs to only 4m57s.

    Despite it's short running time the film manages to pack in most of the essential elements of the story from Judges 11 with one glaring exception. The Gileadite leaders plead with Jephthah, previously a social outcast, to lead them in a battle with the Ammonites. He accepts and vows to God that if he wins he will burn as an offering the first person to leave his house. When he gets home the first person through the doors is his own daughter, who then submits to her father's sickening vow.

    Two of the most notable omissions are Jepthah's long speech (11:12-28) and his daughter's two months weeping and wandering in the mountains (11:37-40), so it would be interesting to know what was in the 20-25 minutes left on the cutting room floor. Given that the intertitles are fairly long and appear quite often in this print, it's not unreasonable to assume Jephthah's speech may have been included in part, or even at length, likewise with the trip to the mountains.

    However, the really puzzling omission is the actual sacrifice of the daughter, here called Leïla and played by Jeanne Bérangère. According to a rather old page at cineartistes.com Bérangère was a theatre actor before the Pathé's tempted her into cinema where she worked until 1928. She starred (though not as the lead) in Andréani and Zecca's Shakespearean adaptation Cleopatra (1910) among other roles. She was born in 1864 meaning that at the time of filming she was around almost 50, which is probably rather older than we would typically assume the daughter of a warrior to be (Henri Etiévant who played her on-screen father was six years her junior).

    Instead the closing scene features Bérangère kneeling (pictured below) before two handmaidens cover her with a bed-sheet-sized veil obscuring her face from view. This is a fascinating piece of imagery. Shorn of an actual scene of the sacrifice, this acts as a replacement. The veil is reminiscent of the sheets placed on bed placed over dead bodies, but also a simple of way of obscuring her from our view as if she is no longer present, gone but not forgotten. 

    Moreover it could also be read as a comment on the way that the name of her idiotic father has been passed down to us, while she has been obscured from history, forever nameless and therefore, in a way, faceless. An then there's also a sense of holiness, like the veil between the majority of the temple and the holy of holies, or (more pertinently) the veil that Moses wears after his encounters with God in Exodus 34:35.

    As I've mentioned before, films about Jephthah and his daughter are few and far between, but occur mainly in this early silent period around the turn of the decade. Prior to this one (and it's longer sibling)  J. Stuart Blackton made one in 1909 for Vitagraph (which I included in my book) and Léonce Perret / Louis Feuillade did the same for Gaumont in 1910 (there's more on that one at the excellent BetweenMovies, including a writing credit for a certain Abel Gance). That one was also known as The Vow.

    However, 1913 saw not one but two films titled Jephthah's Daughter, as J. Farrell MacDonald produced another 25-30 minute version of the story for Warner (my review). This one was directed by Henri Andréani, whose name I will always associate with melodrama, following David Shepherd's chapter about his work in his monograph "The Bible on Silent Film". Here there is plenty of melodrama, especially from Mr Etiévant as Jephthah. (In addition starring in roughly 66 movies, Etiévant ended up as a director himself taking charge of around 27 films starting that same year, having co-directed La fin d'un joueur (1911) with André Calamettes). 

    One area where Andréani's thumbprint seems clearest is his staging of the battle scene. This large scale scene, featuring a huge crowd of extras looks so similar in composition and camera placing / movement looks so similar to the battle scenes from Andréani's earlier Absalon (Absalom, 1912) that I was convinced he'd simply reused the battle footage from the earlier film. Close inspection reveals this not to be the case. Perhaps he was reusing spare footage he shot on that day, or perhaps he knew how (and, I think, where) he liked to film these shots. Either way it's not hard to imagine that in the fuller version of this movie, the scene is as impressive as it is in Absalon.

    Of course with any Jephthah movie the key issue is not the battle scenes, but how it handles the terrible twist in the story. Do they try and justify Jephthah's actions or excuse it. Certainly the absence of the sacrifice scene itself removes some of the horror of the actual story. This needless death happens off-screen. Moreover the absence of the daughter's last days in the mountains also misses the chance to humanise her and to bring her centre stage. Bérangère becomes a rather peripheral figure. Her father is presented as the hero. 

    Moreover it's he who is permitted a horrified reaction (again allowing the audience to sympathise with him). Bérangère remains placid and unaffected, calmly accepting her awful fate. The one point I will note in the film's favour in this respect is that the intertitles clearly say that Jephthah's vow (Judges 11:31) was made with human sacrifice in mind. Jephthah promises to sacrifice "la première personne" (the first person) that leaves the house, rather than "whatever" as most English translations render it. The NRSV, my preferred translation, goes for "whoever", though as do the two French versions I checked. It's seemingly one of those passages whose translation is largely determined by your prior convictions about what you think happened.

    Perhaps this cut ending where it does leaves such questions open ended, in a similar way to how some argue the sudden ending of Mark might intend to. It leaves. us with questions. Given the vow he has made, what should he do. Would God mind if he broke his vow to avoid such a horrible outcome? So much of Judges plays like a series of cautionary tales, and perhaps this is a good way to translate that sense back into a 'modern' context

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