• 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


    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e02

    After a fairly eventful first episode of the new series, this one feels like a return to the world-building that sets The Chosen apart from other on-screen depictions of Jesus. This is not unfamiliar for the series being similar to the earlier episodes of season 1. Here, the episode essentially takes place on the road between their unknown encampment and Caesarea Philippi (although the pronunciation of Caesarea Philippi  is fairly unusual). 

    We also get introduced to two more disciples, which actually is fairly rare the series so far. When we first meet Jesus, he already has a few that disciples in tow or at least is friends with them, Peter, Big James etc. and we're introduced to Mary joining the group. Then at the end of the first season we get the climax of Matthew's conversion narrative. Other than that, though, relatively few of the 12 have a joined (perhaps Thomas?). 

    In some ways, then, it's interesting to see two new disciples joining in the one episode, although in both the Bible and the episode there's a sense that they come as a pair. 


    The first one we encounter is Nathaniel and he is introduced in the style that's quite common for the Chosen. The first scene features a new location and new members of the cast. We learn a little bit about this person's backstory, and their motivations, before cutting then to scenes of the disciples or of Jesus (or both). Then gradually the new cast member comes into the orbit of the established group and eventually becomes part of the movement (if not the disciples).

    And so it is with Nathaniel. We meet him as an architect with great ambitions, but facing prejudice both for being Jewish, and also because of his level of education. When one of his building projects fails (perhaps because of this prejudice) he is left emotionally broken and out of a job. Those who know their Bible well but we'll recognise the name Nathaniel and so not not be surprised when sooner or later he appears under a tree weighing up his future. 

    Here, just to make sure no-one misses it, Nathaniel ends by crying out "Do you see me? Do You See Me?". Of course God does, which means at the end of the episode Jesus is able to say to him "I saw you under the fig tree" -- a strong suggestion that Jesus and God are one the same. The story-line is brought to an unintentionally amusing conclusion when Nathaniel utters something, as if deliberately quoting the screenplay of The Matrix, "He is the one".


    The other new character we meet here is Philip and his introduction is very different from the pattern outlined above. Philip seems to come across Peter and the other disciples as they're wandering through the countryside. He himself seems very familiar with them, leaving them befuddled as to how he is so familiar with them, when they have only just met. 

    It quickly transpires, though, that not only does he know Andrew, but he has also been a disciple of John the Baptist for the last two years. We also discover that he knows Nathaniel fairly well, although the two have very different personalities: whereas Nathaniel is aware of his own hubris, there's an implication that perhaps he has been a little arrogant, and that he is not particularly comfortable around people. 

    In contrast, Philip is incredibly personable and has much higher confidence than his architect friend. He rubs Peter, and perhaps some of the other disciples, up the wrong way a little, but certainly endears himself to some of the more fringe members of the group with whom he seems to take time to connect, valuing and emphasising their importance to Jesus' movement. In some ways I'm rather with Peter, though I appreciate Philip's concern for those on the margins, and the way that he is already acting as the social glue that holds Jesus' movement together. 

    John the Baptist and Herod

    It's interesting too that we learn quite a bit about the series' John the Baptist from this encounter. As the show started long after Jesus' baptism, we mainly have encountered John through the other disciples's comments, particularly Peter who (as is pointed out to Philip) Peter calls John "crazy John". Here we also have Jesus refer to him as his cousin and clarify that they are more or less the same age. These are details that many biblical scholars question. For many, the thought is that John was older and in some ways Jesus was initially a follower, part of his movement, before choosing his own path. The tying of the two of them together as part of the same family, according to this theory, is the familial details we find in Luke's Gospel are later inventions. 

    I'm not sure that Jesus being a disciple of John's, prior to beginning his own ministry, rules out the possibility that the two are not related. It's certainly not implausible that two people with similar genes end up having a similar set of skills and ending up in the public eye, despite having separate careers. We wouldn't assume that if Luke had not mentioned it, but given that he does, I'm not sure there's much of a case for overturning it.

    It does seem, though, that John is still alive and so perhaps we might meet him before he meets his untimely fate.

    We also get a little bit more information about Herod. This comes as the group approach their destination at the end of the episode, Caesarea Philippi. We're told that John criticised Herod for his killing sons and swapping wives. It's interesting to see the mention of 'killing sons' as this is not found in scripture, but it's something we know from other sources such as Josephus. Again I wonder if we will get to meet Herod at any point before Jesus' trial.

    Jewish context

    Perhaps it's just some of the discussions that I've been involved in online and the comments that the director Dallas Jenkins has made himself, but it became far clearer in this episode (to me at least) the extent to which the show is keen to emphasise Jesus' Jewish heritage: the use of the word rabbi (which has been involved in since the start) felt like it was is being used more frequently here. Philip applies it to John for example. 

    Secondly, there's a lot of discussion about " Hebrew School", particularly between Philip and Matthew. Matthew we learn was so good at maths he dropped out of Hebrew language classes to focus on Maths alone. The point is made -- and I'm not really sure what historical basis there is for this -- that all the male disciples, more or less, have been to Hebrew School.

    This is perhaps why nearly all of them are able to join in with a recitation of a relatively obscure passage in Ezekiel (39:9-10a). Perhaps this passage is better known amongst the Jewish community now, or there is some evidence that it had great significance at the time, but it's not one that is in a lot of people's consciousness. So the fact that so many other disciples are able to recite it, in such unison, is either further proof of what good Jews they are, or a suggestion that they know most of the Hebrew Bible as well as this, or perhaps both. 

    I'm open to being correct about this, but it feels like a stretch. I don't know that there's much evidence that the average peasant labourer / fishermen would have enjoyed this level of education. Most of their time would have been spent learning the family trade and then starting to work in said business from a young age. Nevertheless, the point is also made that women such as Mary would not have had such an opportunity.

    I've mentioned here before about James Crossley's line about many portrayals of Jesus showing him as "Jewish, but not that Jewish" and this feels like perhaps another example. (We also get, for example, Jesus or the disciples, making derogatory comments about organised religion which apparently Jesus doesn't "do". 


    There were a couple of other things that grabbed my attention as well, both of which take place on the road as part of a conversation between Peter (who we're still calling Simon) and Jesus. The first is Peter and his concern that as the number of followers grows, there is a lot of duplication of effort and perhaps a lack of leadership. 

    It's a really interesting way of raising this part of Simon's personality, because it's clear to the audience that Simon is jostling for position and wanting to get himself appointed to a special leadership position over the others. Jesus though is not playing the game and handles things expertly. 

    Firstly, he doesn't call Peter out on his rather transparent bid for power, but instead speaks to the longer term potential of the movement. Then, when the appropriate moment arrives, Peter's special skills will come to the fore. This is clearly a nod towards him becoming the 'leader' of the early church, and it's interesting that what both men are envisaging seems relatively hierarchical. Certainly it will appeal more to those within Catholicism than those within movements such as the quakers. And this forms an interesting counterpoint to the comments earlier about Jesus' dislike of religion. Put perhaps I'm reading too much into that.

    This conversation does feel like it comes slightly out of left field, however. Peter has never really struck me as the 'system's analyst' guy, which seems to be the role he is playing here. Y es there's a level of calculating self-promotion, which fits with his character elsewhere, and it's good that the show doesn't just portray him as transparently portraying self-promotion, but I also wonder where the streak will go. Will there be any further moments in the show where these skills are in some way brought out or is this just part of the foundations and these to be laid for that later conversation that we all know is coming.

    In any case having spoken to Peter's potential rather than criticised his flaws Jesus dashes off. It's time for him to push the cart carrying their belongings. Big James has been doing it emphasising the strongly physical nature of the task, which is further highlighted by the other disciples initial unwillingness to relieve him. But now Jesus is actively wanting to take on the task, he reminds his followers of his past career as a labourer and the physicality of that task. It's also a nod to the kind of servant leadership typicl of a man who will later, presumably, wash his own disciples' feet. Interestingly though we don't see Jesus pushing the cart, I'm left wondering why that is. It's probably just one of those things, but perhaps there will be more to it...


    Saturday, May 18, 2024

    Jone o Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (Ione or The Last Days of Pompeii, 1913)

    Set, famously, in 79AD, film adaptations of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel "The Last Days of Pompeii" do not usually cross into Bible film territory. However, the 1935 Hollywood version (my review) by the directors of King Kong Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper somehow manages to shoehorn Jesus into the picture and so I'm always keen to see other versions of the story just in case. Plus I'm just a big fan of Roman peplum films anyway.

    So the recent showing of one of the two 1913 Italian versions of the film at Kenington Bioscope's Seventh Silent Film weekend proved irresistible: It ticks all my boxes, as a love of Italian cinema, silent movies and the potential for a biblical character as well.That potential is only slight. In the novel – itself inspired by Karl Briullov's painting "The Last Day of Pompeii" – four characters end up being Christians (after Olinthus converts Apaecides and Glaucus and Ione convert later), but there are no biblical characters from what I recall.

    As it turned out, I was to be disappointed on the biblical characters front: The film sticks in its lane and doesn't even really explore the Christianity angle. Nevertheless I thought I may as well record a few thoughts here while I was at it.

    As I mentioned above 1913 witnessed two Italian versions of the story being made. The more famous one, directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and possibly Mario Caserini (who was one of the earliest Italian cinema pioneers, directing a stack of Shakespearean and historical films) is simply called Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (a literal translation) and had been produced by Ambrosio – one of the major film production companies in pre-WWI Italy, based in Turin. You can view it on Wikipedia. The handouts/notes for the day, written by the Italian silent historical film expert Ivo Blom identified this as the original film. Apart from anything, it was Ambrosio who had had success with the 1908 version. Blom explains that 

    "when Ambrosio heard that the rival company Pasquali, their city rival, was going to release an equally ambitious, impressive film on the same subject and launched at the same time, they were seething. Yet not even appeals to the court could stop the release of Pasquali's version which had its premiere in Rome four days after the Ambrosio version". 

    Yet aside from local rivalry, there were other reasons why both companies may have set their hearts on adapting Bulwer-Lytton's novel. Firstly, earlier in the year another adaptation of a 19th century novel based on the mid-first century Roman Empire had enjoyed huge success. To say the 1913 Quo Vadis? was a groundbreaking movie is something of an understatement: it redefined the possibilities of what historical cinema could be, set the bar to a new height in terms of spectacle and grandeur and was celebrated across the globe. So film producers did what film producers tend to do and looked for the nearest bandwagon they could jump on. Ben-Hur was tied up in a legal case, but Last Days was evidently very much available.

    The other key motivation was that Vesuvius (very much the villain of the piece) had erupted again in 1906, killing 100 people and activity began stirring again in 1913 (though not as dramatic) so despite the story being set 1850 years in the past, it had particular modern relevance.

    I've yet to see the Ambrosio version, but, sadly the Pasquali version (directed by Giovanni Enrico
    Vidali and Ubaldo Maria del Colle) was kind of dull. Not knowing the story, it was hard to get much sense of the plot, particularly as the available intertitles were displayed too briefly to be able to read them. I'm not sure if any other prints of the film still exist, but were it to ever get a DVD/ digital release I hope they extend the duration of the title that remain.

    From what I could work out, though, Nydia, a slave/servant with a visual impairment, essentially helps Glaucus and Jone escape the evil (pagan) priest Arbaces (played by Vidali, one of the directors). The individual scenes feel very much like they could have been shot in a early 20th century country house and are fairly pedestrian, but for the fact that Suzanne De Labroy who plays Nydia overacts quite badly.

    There were a couple of shots of the crowd, big shots designed to impress and to showcase the 300 people who purportedly starred in the film, but the camera angles were very unconventional, betraying a sense that they didn't have have enough extras to fill a normal shot and so had to cram the ones they did have into a narrow frame. The production also advertised “100 lions and tigers” and they, along with the wider amphitheatre shots are the highlight, ably abetted by the horses. 

    What I did find interesting, however, is the way the film adopts Maggi’s innovative stumble-past-the-camera shot as seen in both Ambrosio's earlier Last Days (1908) and his later Giuda (1911). It’s not an exact reproduction,  but it certainly seems like a nod. Or was it just a rip-off? Perhaps it was a way to leave audiences thinking they had seen the Ambrosio remake – that seems a little far fetched though.

    Sadly. in contrast with the 1908 film, the climax of the Pasquali film was a little disappointing. Things descended into chaos, but the moment the volcano erupts felt a little sedate. But perhaps that's on me. Perhaps, with a serious volcanic eruption lodged in the collective memory, too great a proportion of the film's potential viewers might object to over-the-top, Hollywood-style, pyrotechnics.


    For a different (and, lets face it, better) take on the film have a look at the review of my blog-twin Paul Joyce over at his IThankYouArthur blog who reviewed the whole day.

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    Saturday, May 04, 2024

    Noah Adaptations p01: Introduction

    I'm going to start a new series looking at adaptations of the Noah story, which is going to be broader than just film to look at other, earlier, media (including “The Deluge” (1840) by Francis Danby, above). But I'm also going to be looking at adaptation in an era of changed weather patterns and human responses to that, and the idea that adaptation has parallels with recycling. 

    The obvious convergence point -- for those that know me -- is Darren Aronofsky's 2014 film Noah which presents Noah as a passionate environmentalist, whose absolute belief that God shares his passion drives him to almost wipe out his family (and therefore the remaining vestiges of destructive humanity).

    I don't know that I have much more to say about it at this point. but if I have time I'll perhaps compose a super list of Noah films, though given the sheer number of animated takes on this film it might prove tricky to know where to put the cut-off point.

    Also I'm on the hunt for a good reception history guide to Noah (sadly the Wiley Blackwell volume "Genesis Through the Centuries" is still a couple of years away from publication. I'm hoping my access to De Grutyer's "Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception" is still valid.

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