• 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


    Friday, February 01, 2019

    L'uomo dalla croce (1943)

    Back in 2014 I wrote a chapter for the book "The Bible in Motion" on the films of Roberto Rossellini. One of the biggest challenges in writing the chapter was tracking down enough of his films to be able to discuss. Since then the BFI and Criterion have released a number of his works, but there was one title in particular that I was disappointed not to be able to see as it sounded like it might be of some relevance: L'uomo dalla croce (The Man of the Cross, 1943).

    The film was only Rossellini's third feature and came during what is often called his fascist period. For most of its existence Italian fascism was somewhat different from what was happening with the Nazis in Germany, such that communists, anti-fascists and fascists could mix without too much fear of reprisal.

    Rossellini, himself never hugely political, was good friends with Vittorio Mussolini, son of Il Duce, indeed it was he who got him his big break into filmmaking. In later years, Rossellini was understandably keen to distance himself from his involvement with the fascists and there's precious little evidence to suggest he was took on their beliefs, even if he was closer to the dictator's son than either he, or many of his admirers care to discuss.

    His films from this period, however, contain a surprising degree of ambiguity around their connection with fascism. Tag Gallagher, in his fine biography of Rossellini highlights the many ways that the three films he made at that time subvert expectations. Indeed he makes the point that it is hard to imagine an American film from that period including such criticisms of the military. Not everyone agrees, Peter Bondanella argues that some Rossellini scholars are a little too keen to read into these films subversive messages. I assume he's thinking of Gallagher, but have not read enough about the subject to know for certain.

    Rossellini's two previous films La nave bianca (The White Boat, 1941) and La pilota ritorna (The Pilot Returns, 1942) had dealt with the navy and the air force respectively, so naturally the final instalment deals with the army. The story revolves around the Italian insurgence into Russian territory, but the film's was delayed for so long that by the time it was released the Italian army was very much on the back foot in chaotic conditions. The "man" of the title is Father Reginaldo Giuliani, an army chaplain, who stays behind in no-mans-land between the two warring armies to look after an injured soldier. The majority of the film takes place in a crowded, ramshackle cottage where the Italians mix with Russian peasants, themselves equally trapped.

    As with the other two films in this trilogy, Rossellini includes elements that may well have not made it into and English or American movies from the same era. For example, it's difficult to think of a film by the allies where they show injured men being left behind at anything other than the victim's insistence, yet here it is the central element of the plot. Anyone seeking an unlikely double bill with Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge (2017) need look no further.

    The brief behind my previous piece on Rossellini was to cover how he treated the Bible, and it took a slightly broader course than simply re-hashing my writing on Atti degli apostoli (Acts of the Apostles, 1969) and Il Messia (The Messiah, 1975), covering how relevant parts of films, even such as his biopic Blaise Pascal (1972), touched on the Bible. This film certainly touches on issue of faith and the Bible as much as Pascal, if not slightly more.

    There are various moments that stand out in this respect. At one point, stuck in a bombed out cottage with a potent mixture of Italians and Russians, Giuliani refuses to treat the later any differently from how he would treat his compatriots. "I am a minister of God who is the Father of all men and even if they are hostile they are all brothers in his eyes" he argues at one point.

    More to the point, however, is that Giuliani sees his role as a comforter, not least because there's a suggestion that God's salvation is already present for those who pursue it. Moments after Sergei, one of the leading Russians, dies, Father Giuliani comforts his partner Irina, urging her not to give up hope so they will be reunited, with the words:
    "And God will tell you. And God will urge you. But if he was a man with goodness in his soul, then he is never truly gone. Before you give up you must shout, and you must plead with him. The Lord is always listening to you, up there in heaven. The Lord, who died on the cross for you, for your Sergei. Sergei, Sergei...God says to you: 'Bless those who cry for they must be consoled'"
    Of course part of this portrayal is also propaganda. Italy hosts the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, the faith of its army is a central point that contrasts strongly with the atheism that was the policy of the Russian state at the time. Indeed the opening credits of the film dedicate it to "the heroic chaplains fallen among the Godless in barbaric lands".

    But perhaps the film's most memorable "biblical" moment - and I don't want to just reduce the film to that, as it's certainly about far more - is the birth of Sergei and Irina's child. It's here that the film's humble setting comes into it's own: the rural context means that animals are in the background, and hay abounds in the misè-en-scene all give this the feel of a certain stable in Bethlehem and the composition of Irina holding her child further reinforce the point. Moments later Giuliani gives the child a Christian baptism, just one of many examples of him performing the function of a priest amongst his people. The child is baptised with the name of Nicola, with its connotations of St Nicholas, who as well as his connection to the birth of Jesus is also the patron saint of Russia.

    As much as the film nicely covers the essential bases of priesthood in the most unlikely of contexts - under fire in a remote part of atheist Russia, it never really gets beneath Giulliani's skin in the way later films do. To quote Tag Gallagher, by this early stage in his career "Rossellini is not yet a moviemaker with real people. His priest is an outline, his other characters bare figures in the chorus." (Gallagher, 105). In some ways it is that old problem of portraying goodness being far harder than portraying evil. Giulliani is more or less faultless even as he dies he crawls across the floor to whisper the words of the Lord's Prayer into his assassin's ear. He is far from the tormented ministers of Bergman's faith trilogy, or from a variety of movie priests who have struggled with their consciences.

    Even with that said there is more to the portrayal of goodness than that. Three years later Rossellini's Roma, città aperta would revisit the heroic priest character, who similarly lacked the flaws of other movie ministers. Yet there, in the character of Don Pietro Pellegrini, Rossellini fashions a character of real depth as well as real goodness. In many ways Giulliani is his forerunner; the connection between the two is plain to see.

    Having said all that, the film is not without its masterful moments. In particular, Rossellini shows his skill at recreating what looks like documentary footage. The battle scenes are particularly effective in this respect. There's something about them that I can't quite put my finger on that makes them seem so much more real than other war-action scenes, yet they are all dramatic reconstructions. Particularly striking in this respect is the shots of the Italian infantry moving in with their fire hoses ablaze. Even if Rossellini was not the finished article by this stage, his mastery of these scenes is already apparent and it was not long before his command of dialogue and social interaction would catch up.

    Gallagher, Tag (1998) The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films New York: Da Capo Press.

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    Wednesday, July 04, 2007

    Atti Degli Apostoli (Acts of the Apostles)

    When reading Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, it's easy to forget that the events it describes took 30 years to unfold. Aside from the prologue Luke's gospel spends 24 chapter on the events of just 3 years, and the immediacy of his writing style changes little between parts 1 and 2 of his story about Jesus and his followers.

    Films about Acts have tended to reinforce the speed with which we perceive the events occurred. With 28 chapters to cram into just a few hours it's difficult to carve out the space to show time ebbing along.

    Rossellini's Atti Degli Apostoli (1968), however, bucks the trend. Whilst including a great deal of the biblical material (only chapter 19 and 24 are completely omitted), it still manages to convey the slowness of the process which led to Paul's arrival in Rome.

    Rossellini does this by utilising a number of different techniques, many of which pull against the epic film genre. Large crowd scenes are kept to a minimum, as are on-screen depictions of miracles (although there are examples of both, particularly at the start of the film). Acts' many sermons are delivered in a low key style rather than converted into the kind of rousing speech that is so typical of the epic. Further more, most of the apostles' evangelism consists of one on one conversations, or talks in front of small groups, perhaps in a remote synagogue. The production opposes the epic in other ways, for example, it usually underplays the hero's persecution and refuses to import romantic sub-plots.

    There are a number of other ways in which the film creates this more leisurely pace. Firstly, Rossellini punctuates his action with moments where nothing is really happening. There is space in this film, often at the start or the end of a shot. In some ways these moments of space are unnecessary; but in other ways they are the very essence of the film.

    There's a masterful shot at the start of the seventh episode1 which starts with a close up of a deserted dust track. The shot ever so gradually widens as the camera pulls back, eventually incorporating Paul and Barnabas as they trek up the road to Pisidian. It's one of many examples of Rossellini's Pancinor zoom technique – the long shots which zoom in and out drawing attention to various parts of the scene but keeping them connected to the larger whole. Here it starts with the emptiness of a remote path and then locates Paul and Barnabas on it. The shot as a whole tells the story of a long quiet walk along a deserted road.

    Prior to this point in the film the action has centred around a busy Jerusalem, with only brief forays into the outside world. But from here on in, Paul becomes the main protagonist, and he and his companions pursue a lonely course of action through the towns of Asia Minor. Even the council of Jerusalem occurs outside the actual city itself.

    The second way in which this film implies a more protracted timescale is by stressing how isolated Paul and the other disciples are from each other, and how unaware they are of the impact they are having. When Paul meets a besotted Prisicilla and Aquilla he is stunned to discover that he, and his Lord, are already well known in Rome. As he nears the great city in the closing scenes, he is again taken aback to find he is known and admired by a sizeable Christian community.

    The great strength of these scenes is how emotionally powerful they are given their apparent restraint and understated acting. Somehow the numerous subtleties of the performances and the way they are filmed add up to something quite moving. Another example of this is disciples' reunion at the council of Jerusalem. Before launching into the debate about gentile adherence to the law, Rossellini pauses to show Peter waiting for the other delegates. But rather than being absorbed with the business the council needs to attend to, it seems he's mainly looking forward to seeing his friends and brothers again.

    The film's ultra-long takes are, in themselves, another way in which the film suggests the passage of time. Perhaps the majority of scenes in Atti are filmed in a single, extended, shot. There are of course exceptions, notably the food riot in Jerusalem where the montage is perhaps a formal way of underlining that this particular episode is fictional, but these only serve to remind us of the longer takes elsewhere.

    Filming a scene in a single shot gives the cuts between these scenes extra significance. Within a shot the action occurs in real time. Once that continuity is broken the time that has passed whilst the camera has been turned off is unknown and potentially, therefore, represents an extended period.

    Commentators have suggested a number of reasons why Rossellini relied so heavily on the long shot, (accompanied by the Pancinor zoom and the plan séquence). For some writers it was simply economy – long shots reduced the post production editing process to simply joining the scenes in the correct order, whilst also reducing the time and money spent altering lighting and make up for each scene. Other commentators, however, whilst perhaps accepting those particular advantages also see it as a way of giving the film more realistic aesthetic, and allowing the films to be more neutral.

    By this stage in his life Rossellini was firmly into his historical period, producing films that he thought would "aim human beings in becoming more rational".2 To this end he had reverted to making films for television where "the [critical] spirit of the individual is more accentuated".3 Rossellini's desire for historicity is apparent throughout the series. Almost the entire first episode consists of an enslaved scribe giving a Roman noble a tour of Jerusalem along with a social and historical commentary. Elsewhere the rise and fall of the various Caesars is introduced into the relevant part of the script.

    There is also a great deal of the everyday in Atti. The apostles spend a great deal of time engaged in manual labour. Peter is shown dyeing, Paul weaving, Stephen serving food and so on. Often the disciples spread they gospel as they work, a theme that would reappear in Il Messia.

    That said Rossellini's concern is not so much with a detailed recreation of the period as of the particular work in which he is adapting. This also apparent with his other historical works which are also adaptations of historical artefacts. So whilst the costumes and locations are fairly realistic, these areas are not attended to as rigorously as they are in many historical films today. The aim is to recreate (the feel of) the work rather than the events the work discusses.

    This is one of the reasons why so many of the miraculous stories are not shown directly. This is simply a feature of Luke's work which Rossellini is seeking to recreate. Yet Rossellini relies on characters recounting supernatural occurrences more than Luke. Whilst this might appear to be an inconsistency, it only reflects the manner in which the story has been heard ever since.

    There are two further reasons why Rossellini portrays the miracles in this manner. Firstly, describing the miracles is far more ambiguous than showing them. This allows the viewer to approach them from their own perspective, without forcing a particular opinion. Secondly, it recontextualises them. Set in a fresh context they once again become startling, like they were for their original audiences, liberated from the confines of familiarity.

    This recontextualisation is also seen in some of the speeches made by the apostles. "In these films, characters boldly foreground their words, paradoxically, by delivering them in a flattened, often completely uninflected way... [focussing attention] on the ideas and historical forces at work".4

    Another way in which the film may be seen to be at variance with the book is in its great respect for the Judaism of the period. The lengthy prologue places the narrative firmly in a broader context explaining, for example, that Christianity was only one of a number of Jewish sects. It is also keen to stress the Judaism of the early apostles. Prior to his conversion Saul is shown sitting in the Sanhedrin, and even after his trip to Damascus he retains his side curls.

    There are also points where the film questions Paul's modus operandi of using the network of synagogues to promulgate his message. Is he taking advantage of the hospitality which he is shown? Do the Hebrews (as the film generally calls them) in that town have good reason not to abandon their faith for his?

    Such questioning should not be seen as an outright criticism of Paul. Indeed his dedication and his genuineness come across very clearly. Perhaps the biggest slur against him is the irritating American drawl used to dub the film into English.

    Fortunately, the visuals are so brilliantly memorable that they persist in the memory long after the poor dubbing has faded into obscurity. As with the book, the precise words used by the apostles may no longer be recoverable, but the impact of what they achieved endures.

    1 - The version of the film I saw was the ten episode "catechical" version. There is also a 5 episode version of this film (where each section is just short of an hour) where this shot should occur at the beginning of episode 4.
    2 – Brunette, Peter. "Roberto Rossellini", University of California Press (1996) p. 253
    3 – Interview, Filmcritica, no 190 (Aug 1968), 351 – cited in Brunette
    4 – Brunette, Peter. "Roberto Rossellini", University of California Press (1996) p. 262

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    Tuesday, April 21, 2015

    Quotes on Atti Degli Apostoli (1969)

    With A.D. The Bible Continues airing on NBC at the moment there's a little talk around about other films based on the Acts of the Apostles and, as it happens, today I received in the post a new book about Roberto Rossellini's whose own take on the book of Acts - Atti Degli Apostoli (1969) - is one of my favourites. There's not much in the book about the film but there are a couple of good quotes that I thought I would reproduce here.

    The book is "Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real" and it's a compilation of essays edited by David Forcas, Sarah Lutton and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. However the final section of the book is a collection of six "documents" written on or by Rossellini during the 50s and the 70s. The one I'm quoting here is document C, "Letter from Rossellini to Peter H. Wood (1972)" and says the following
    The Acts of the Apostles is the story of Luke the Evangelist, but also of the change in ethics in our history when the Hebrew idea of nature - a gift of God which man must us to distinguish himself from the animals - spread, thanks to Christianity, through the Greek-Roman pagan world, which had regarded nature as something inviolable, which men, through rite and ritual, tried to render benign. (p.164)
    The other quote is from Adriano Aprà's chapter "Rossellini's Historical Encyclopedia" and is found on page 144.
    Acts of the Apostles is, in my opinion, alongside The Age of Cosimo de 'Medici and Cartesius, the best of Rossellini's television films. It is also the 'hottest', the one where the emotional involvement he renounces elsewhere is most visible. There is a broad sweep: the film starts from the centre, Jerusalem, and a community of brothers, the apostles, then gradually the circle widens. The apostles set out on their journey (like the friars at the end of Francesco); the conflict between Jews, Greeks and Romans, initially contained within the city, echoes along the route which takes the apostles and later Paul to Palestine, Syria, Pisidia, Athens and Rome, where the last scene in the films opens with the same invocation as the first (Jerusalem! Jerusalem!") and the circle is closed. Acts is the film of harmonic totality. The itinerary of the abstract idea is a concrete journey where the characters are cocooned by the surrounding space; the male community of the brothers is constantly given warmth by the silent activity of the women, who are frequently highlighted by the zoom; the dialogue, more than in the other films, is used to establish contact between people and try and overcome differences. Rossellini takes liberties with the text of the apostle Luke, synthesising, expanding, cutting and inventing to good effect.

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    Thursday, October 19, 2006

    Rossellini Retrospective - Atti and Il Messia

    Ron Reed has news of a Rossellini Retrospective to celebrate the directors centenary which will be visiting a number of major cities. First up is the Cinematheque Ontario which will be showing the retrospective from October 20th to December 10th. It will also be coming to MOMA (New York - November 15 - December 22), Toronto, with London and Los Angeles to follow in 2007.

    Rossellini made numerous great films, many of which are praised for their spirituality, despite the fact he declared himself to be "a complete atheist"1. I've only sampled a few so far, (Roma Città Aperta (Rome Open City), Francesco, Guillare Di Dio (Francis, God's Jester) and Il Messia) but all are firm favourites. Three of his films made the Arts and Faith top 100 (Open City, St Francis, and Stromboli).

    There are two films in the retrospective that specifically deal with stories from the bible. The first is Atti Degli Apostoli (Acts of the Apostles - 1968), which I discussed briefly in last months post on the Jerusalem Council. I've actually never seen this, so I'm hotly anticipating seeing this, although at 6 hours I may need to take a cushion.

    The other is Il Messia, which I have seen several times, and included in my Top Ten List of Jesus films. I like this film a great deal, partly because, like Pasolini's Matthew, the neo-realist touches give the feel a very natural, low key feel. It's also the only film I'm aware of that shows Jesus continuing to work (as a carpenter) after his mission begins. This was actually Roberto Rosellini's last film, and so, sadly, it is not discussed in the sole book I have on Rossellini,"Roberto Rosellini" by José Luis Guarner.

    I imagine that nearer the time the other cinemas involved in this retrospective will post their own details, although Cinematheque Ontario's site is very impressive. Hugo Salas has also written a nice summary of the director's work at Senses of Cinema, as has the BBC's Chris Wiegand.

    1 - Essay on Rossellini Retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario

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    Tuesday, June 05, 2007

    Viaggio in Italia, Illibatezza and Roma Città Aperta

    In preparation for seeing Atti Degli Apostoli later this month, I've been (re-)examining some of Rossellini's other films. I've now watched four in the last week, including and having recorded my thought on Il Messia in last month's podcast I'd now like to make a few comments about the other three.

    Viaggio in Italia - 1953
    The first film of the trio was 1953's Viaggio in Italia starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as an unhappy married couple. The film opens with shots out of their car window. This gives the film a sense of immediacy such that it feels like the film had been playing for some time before we tuned in. Of course in the story of this couple's life, this is exactly what has happened. As the film settles down, it becomes clear that the marriage is starting to unravel, neither seemingly able to take the steps to bring about the necessary reconciliation.

    Finally, after a short time apart (the whole film occurs in less than a week), they agree to get a divorce but are interrupted before the conversation reaches its natural conclusion. In the final scene whilst attempting to escape from the surroundings that have seemingly oppressed them so much during their stay, they are forced to abandon the car in the midst of a crowd. But once in the midst of the throng of people, Bergman is swept away and looks back in desperation towards her husband. He forces his way through to "save" her and the two are reunited and declare their love for each other.

    To an audience bred on Hollywood romance, the film's ending feels incredibly abrupt and unrealistic. This has been variously interpreted by some as a deliberately false ending, or as a miracle – particularly as a man is shown directly afterwards carrying a pair of crutches. For my part, I can help but feel that this is part of the film's realism. Couples often argue over the silly little things, and the decision to get a divorce (particularly in 1953) seems facile.

    In the same way the moment of reconciliation tuns on similarly insignificant event. Bergman faced no real danger, but it was enough to remind her of her need for her husband, and him of his love for her. Furthermore the moment has enabled them to express things to each other they both needed to share.

    Illibatezza (Chastity) - 1962
    Next up was Rossellini's section from the four way collaboration RoGoPaG (the other directors being Goddard, Pasolini and Gregoretti. Rossellini's film Illibatezza (Chastity) is the first of the four and last for about half an hour.

    The story revolves around an American business man, Joe, and his obsession with a beautiful yet naïve air stewardess, Anna Maria. We first meet Joe as he looks at a copy of Playboy: that is until he sees Anna Maria when he puts down his magazine to watch her more closely. Clever use of point of view shots and editing mean that the audience quickly find themselves in Joe's place, viewing Anna Maria as an object of desire. He has clearly idealised her innocence which has, in turn, birthed an obsession within him.

    Worried about the unwanted attention she is receiving, Anna Maria seeks the advice of her boyfriend. Significantly, we are first introduced to him via a film. Indeed the use of cine cameras throughout the film (Joe, Anna Maria and her boyfriend all use one) indicates that amongst the issues Illibatezza is raising is the medium of cinema itself. No less important is his absence from her life. Throughout the film's duration the two are never together.

    Anna Maria's boyfriend discusses the problem with a psychologist friend of his, whose diagnosis is shocking: Joe is a psychopath with a fixation on Anna Maria's purity. In order to shake him off, she is advised to give the appearance of looseness. She dresses more provocatively and dyes her hair blonde.

    Fans of of Hitcock's earlier, although colour, film Vertigo will notice numerous similarities. The voyeurism and obsession displayed in this film are reminiscent of that film as is the way in which a woman is co-ursed into turning blonde by an emotionally detached boyfriend. The scenario is far less extreme, and the genre is comedy rather than thriller, but thematically the two are very similar.

    As predicted, Joe acts with horror and is left only with his memories. Having initially rejected the sexually "available" blonde of his Playboy magazine, in favour of a "virginal" brunette, he finds that she has become the image of the girl in the magazine. In the film's most comical scene Joe projects the film he took of Anna Maria onto the wall of his hotel room and seeks, in vain, to grasp her image. He has once again chosen the pure brunette over the sexually "active" blonde only this time he has chosen an image of a woman over the real thing. Joe's fruitless grapsing is both comic and tragic. He is left only with his obsession, unable to lay hold of a relationship with a real person.

    Interestingly, Joe's revulsion at Anna Maria's new look is matched by that of her boyfriend. Even though she is clearly uncomfortable with her new image, Joe turns away in disgust upon seeing it. Like Scotty in Vertigo he has re-fashioned the appearance of his girlfriend only to be appalled by what he sees. In trying to protect her he has caused a rift in their relationship.

    Roma Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) - 1945
    This was Rossellini's breakthrough film and it was my second viewing. Whilst remembering only few images from the film prior to rewatching it (Pina's death and Don Pietro's interrogation in particular), I was astounded at how familiar the images were once I saw them again.

    One thing I don't remember appreciating the first time around is the film's humour, particularly in the earlier scenes. This is not uncommon for Rossellini. Both of the previous two films involve some form of humour, and Il Messia occasionally injects irony into the proceedings.

    I was also surprised at how graphic the torture scene was at the end. Sadly the person I watched it with found it all a bit much, and this detracted from me enjoying the film's climax as much as I did the first time I watched it.

    As the film that popularised neo-realism it's hard to appreciate it's innovations over 60 years later. That said, knowing that this film was shot in the places where the original events occurred gave the film a real edge this time around. Similarly, the acting of Don Pietro in particular is strengthened by the expressiveness of his normal face.

    I also noticed how the film blurs the line between the heroes and the villains by inserting two characters into the film who lie somewhere between the Nazi's and the Italian resistance. In the first half of the film (up to Pina's death – the sudden, unexpected nature of which causing a significant shift in the film's tone) there is an Italian policeman who is both friendly with those on his beat and who helps them during the Nazi raid on the neighbourhood. The second, darker, part of the film features a singer who has betrayed Don Petrino and his companions in order to get a fix.

    What is interesting is that we sympathise with the policeman, even thought he works overtly for the enemy, whereas the singer's betrayal elicits the opposite response. However there is a twist right at the end when the cocktail of drugs and drink she bought with her information leave her unconscious on the floor. Her female confidant (and, it is implied, her lover) bends over only to reclaim the coat which she had supposedly given her. The singer remains on the floor only now our perception of her has become more sympathetic.

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    Saturday, April 22, 2017

    Birdsong vs the Biblical Epic

    Two years after The Nativity Story and Spanish/Catalan director Albert Serra produced El cant dels ocells (Birdsong). In contrast to The Nativity Story which sought to position itself as a new, family friendly take on the epic in the hope of reproducing the success of The Passion of the Christ, Birdsong deliberately took almost the opposite approach. Just as Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo opposed 50s and 60s Biblical Epics such as King of Kings, so Birdsong can be seen as an antidote to the excesses of The Passion. Rather than the cast of thousands Birdsong  had a cast of just six. Instead of excessive, lavish sets the film is nearly all filmed outside on deserted landscapes. There are no moral victories, promises of sex, or analogies between the past and the future, indeed the line between the two is somewhat blurred. Birdsong is essentially an anti-epic.

    This 'anti-epic' style is typical of Serra's broader body of work, "a cinema of gentle observation and slow demeanour, in which eccentric characters incarnated by non-professional actors bring new dimensions to well-known fictional and religious archetypes". (Delgado 2013: 12) Two years earlier he had produced a similarly sparse version of the Don Quixote story Honor de Cavelleria (2006) and his 2013 film Història de la meva mort (Story of my Death) similarly drained the stories of Cassanova and Dracula of their melodramatic excesses.

    Serra's work is just one example of "a new kind of cinema that exists on the margins of the Spanish film industry, to question its premises." (Javier 2014: 95-96) Javier suggests that films such as this "create images that seem to resist the recent explosion of our current 'multi-screen' reality. As opposed to the 'excess image' dominating screens in the contemporary world, this cinema opts wholeheartedly for simplicity and restraint". (2014: 96) Nowhere does this movement contrast more greatly that with the excess of the Biblical Epic.

    The most obvious indicator of this is Serra's long, static takes, reminiscent of the style of Roberto Rossellini's later films. Rossellini held that by minimising artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, not only created more genuine films, but it also reminds the viewer that what they are watching is just a reconstruction, not the real thing. Such long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack make the viewing the film not unlike that of viewing paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with great meaning from very little.

    Instead of putting the film in context and recounting all the events surrounding Jesus' birth, or even just covering the complete story of the magi's journey, Serra "reduces the symbolic journey of the Three Wise Men to the characters' simple wanderings through stark mountainous areas or across wide open plains where they are mere blots on the landscape and, on many occasions, actually disappear from view". (Javier 2014: 97). Such a portrayal of these "solitary wanderings undermine narrative momentum, inviting the viewer to contemplate, in silent long takes, images of the empty landscape he traverses" (De Luca 2012: 194). The "temporal elongation of the shot surpasses by far the demands of the story". (2013: 193)

    Indeed, so low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment can almost creep up on the viewer without them really noticing. When the kings finally find the Christ child there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. This is s a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters. Serra produces "a moment of pure reverence, highlighted by the film's only instance of non-diegetic music, when the three men finally prostrate themselves before the mother and child, and the family's private life takes on monumental significance." (O'Brien 2011: 109-110)

    It is this moment that most captures "the tradition of Dreyer, Rossellini [and] Pasolini" as the director intended. (Hughes) It's an understated moment that rather than relying on pomp, ceremony, a powerful soundtrack and over-wrought acting performances is built on the slow realism of al that has gone before it. It not only brings to mind the climaxes of Dreyer's Ordet (The Word, 1955), Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) and the moment when Christ is removed from the cross in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), but extends the tradition.

    Part of the reason this strategy is successful is the way it humanises the three kings, going further than even Pasolini dared. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They even bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. Yet despite this, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage, yet somehow the characters are very engaging.

    Serra also sees something "absurd" in the characters' mission.
    All of the ideology, what Jesus means, we added later. We’re talking about the pioneers. Just three men who probably feel stupid, you know? They don’t know why they are going to see this child, or where they’re going, or how long it will take. They’re following a star to find a small child in order to adore him. (Hughes 2009)
    This forms an interesting contrast with the approach in The Nativity Story. Both films seek to inject humour by portraying three men who have come to be known as wise, acting like ordinary people. Yet in Birdsong this is done without revealing a great deal about who these men are or stripping away the mystery; in contrast, in The Nativity Story, everything is explained, the characters are given names, backstories and motivations, yet both the humour and the attempt to draw parallels between us and them falls flat.

    Just two years, then, after New Line had produced the first Nativity epic, this film becomes the first Nativity 'anti-epic'. A tendency that would be repeated twice more in the following decade in Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010) and Le Fils de Joseph (Son of Joseph, 2016).

    Delgado, Maria. M. (2013), 'Introduction', in M. M. Delgado and R. W. Fiddian (eds.), Spanish Cinema 1973-2000: Auteurism, Politics, Landscape and Memory, 1-20, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    De Luca, Tiago. (2012), 'Realism of the Senses: A Tendency in Contemporary World Cinema' in Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam, Rajinder Dudrah (eds.) Theorizing World Cinema,183-206, London: I.B Tauris.

    Hughes, Darren (2009), 'Albert Serra Interviewed on El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong)', Senses of Cinema. Available online: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/albert-serra-interview/(accessed 22/4/2017).

    Moral, Javier. (2014), 'Behind the Enigma Construct: A Certain Trend in Spanish Cinema' in Duncan Wheeler, Fernando Canet (eds.), (Re)viewing Creative, Critical and Commercial Practices in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, 93-104, Bristol: Intellect Books.

    O'Brien, Catherine. (2011), The Celluloid Madonna: from Scripture to Screen. London, U.K. : Wallflower Press.

    O'Brien, Catherine (2016) 'Women in the Cinematic Gospels'. In: Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, (ed.) The Bible in Motion : a Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, vol. 2, 449-462, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

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    Thursday, January 15, 2009

    Rossellini TV Films on DVD

    Roberto Rossellini took one of the strangest paths any director I know has. Having almost single handedly popularised Neo-Realism with Roma Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) (my review) he eventually made a deliberate move to television seeing it as the ultimate medium (for reasons I forget). It was here that he produced a number of historical films including Atti Degli Apostoli (Acts of the Apostles) and Il Messia (download my podcast). It was a move that remains largely misunderstood by film lovers, to the extent that Wikipedia (and a good many contemporary accounts of his career) gets as far as his affair with Ingrid Bergman and then stops.

    Fortunately, the good people at the Criterion Collection know a good deal more than most, and they recently released a collection of his historical TV films on DVD. Sadly neither of the above titles are included, but as the collection is titled Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment we can but hope that there might be a future series called Rossellini's History Films: The Ancient World (or something similar) which might also include his works on Socrates and Augustine of Hippo. Actually we can do more than that. Criterion have a "contact us" page with a specific email address for sending in suggestions. To which I will shortly be turning my attention. This is actually part of Criterion's Eclipse series.

    Thanks to Peter Chattaway for the link on this one. He also links to an article on this set by Dave Kehr at the New York Times.

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    Monday, November 23, 2015

    The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film

    Editor: Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    Publisher: Walter de Gruyter
    Date: February 15, 2016
    Language: English
    Length: 900 pages*
    Price (Hardback/eBook): £180/$335
    ISBN: 978-1614515616

    It gives me great pleasure to announce the release of this two-volume work on the Bible in Film. A large part of the pleasure comes from the knowledge that two of the chapters in it will be mine, but also it looks set to be the the most comprehensive work on the subject to date with work from most of the leading scholars in this area. First here's the official blurb from the publisher's website:
    This volume contains a comprehensive collection of original studies by well-known scholars focusing on the Bible’s wide-ranging reception in world cinema. Part I examines the rich cinematic afterlives of selected characters from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Part II considers issues of biblical reception across a wide array of film genres, ranging from noir to anime. Part III features directors, from Lee Chang-dong to the Coen brothers, whose body of work reveals an enduring fascination with biblical texts and motifs. Part IV offers topical essays on cinema’s treatment of selected biblical themes (e.g., redemption, lament, apocalyptic), particular interpretive lenses (e.g., feminist interpretation, queer theory), and windows into biblical reception in a variety of world cinemas (e.g., Indian, Israeli, and Third Cinema). This handbook is intended for scholars of the Bible, religion, and film as well as for a wider general audience
    Based on the proofing copy I have seen it seems that his information is a little out of date. For a start it's now split into two volumes, with six parts in total. *Secondly, whereas the data in circulation at the moment suggests that it will be 710 pages, I suspect the final manuscript will be pushing 900. I've excerpted the contents pages below

    I have one chapter in each volume. In the first I have an essay on the depiction of (King) David in film a character who has, hitherto, been rather overlooked by Bible film scholars. But I'm particularly proud of my contribution to the second part, a chapter on Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini is such a great, influential, but - these days - under-appreciated film-maker that it feels like a real honour to write about him. I've been learning some Italian, as much spurred on by my appreciation of his films, and I'm quite looking forward to being able to say I've been published on Rossellini.

    It's also a tremendous honour to be published alongside so many of the writers whose work I have appreciated over the last 15 or so years as well as getting the chance to encounter some new (to me) names as well.

    At 710-900 pages and £180/$335 a copy it's hardly for the casual reader (Amazon even gives it's weight as 1.7lbs!) and I imagine most copies will end up in academic libraries. Still I imagine if it sells well there may be a paperback release at some stage at a substantially lower cost. Certainly if you do get a chance to get hold of a copy I would strongly recommend it.

    VOLUME 1
    Part I: Biblical Characters and Stories (Hebrew Bible)

    1. In the Beginning: Adam and Eve in Film
    - Theresa Sanders
    2. Noah and the Flood: A Cinematic Deluge
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    3. It’s all in the Family: The Patriarchs of Genesis in Film
    - Peter T. Chattaway
    4. The Cinematic Moses
    - Jennifer L. Koosed
    5. Samson and Delilah in Film
    - J. Cheryl Exum
    6. There Might be Giants: King David on the Big (and Small) Screen
    - Matthew Page
    7. Esther in Film
    - Carl S. Ehrlich

    Part II: Film Genres and Film Media
    8. Scripture on Silent Film
    - David J. Shepherd
    9. Film Noir and the Bible
    - Robert Ellis
    10. The Bible Epic
    - Adele Reinhartz
    11. Western Text(s): The Bible and the Movies of the Wild, Wild West
    - Robert Paul Seesengood
    12. Mysteries of the Bible (Documentary) Revealed: The Bible in Popular Non-Fiction and Documentary Film
    - Robert Paul Seesengood
    13. From Skepticism to Piety: The Bible and Horror Films
    - Mary Ann Beavis
    14. “Moses’ DVD Collection”: The Bible and Science Fiction Film
    - Frauke Uhlenbruch
    15. The Word Made Gag: Biblical Reception in Film Comedy
    - Terry Lindvall and Chris Lindvall
    16. Drawing (on) the Text: Biblical Reception in Animated Films
    - R. Christopher Heard
    17. Anime and the Bible
    - Fumi Ogura and N. Frances Hioki

    Part III: Biblical Themes and Genres
    18. God at the Movies
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    19. Satan in Cinema
    - Peter Malone
    20. Creation and Origins in Film
    - Gaye Williams Ortiz
    21. The Book of Job in the Movies: On Cinema‘s Exploration of Theodicy and the Hiddenness of God
    - Reinhold Zwick
    22. Lament in Film and Film as Lament
    - Matthew S. Rindge
    23. What Lies beyond? Biblical Images of Death and Afterlife in Film
    - Sandie Gravett
    24. This is the End: Apocalyptic Moments in Cinema
    - Tina Pippin

    VOLUME 2
    Part I: Biblical Characters and Stories (New Testament)

    1. Jesus and the Gospels at the Movies
    - W. Barnes Tatum
    2. Women in the Cinematic Gospels
    - Catherine O’Brien
    3. Judas as Portrayed in Film
    - Carol A. Hebron
    4. Jews and Judaism in Bible Films
    - Clayton N. Jefford
    5. Paul and the Early Church in Film
    - Richard Walsh
    6. Mythic Relevance of Revelation in Film
    - Meghan Alexander Beddingfield

    Part II: Cinemas and Auteurs
    7. David Wark Griffith: Filming the Bible as the U.S. Story
    - Richard Walsh
    8. Alice Guy Blaché and Gene Gauntier: Bringing New Perspectives to Film
    - Carol A. Hebron
    9. Oscar Micheaux’s Within our Gates: Emergent History and a Gospel of Middle-Class Liberation
    - Nathan Jumper
    10. Cecil B. Demille: Hollywood’s Lay Preacher
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    11. Reframing Jesus: Dreyer’s Lifelong Passion
    - Caroline Vander Stichele
    12. Luis Buñuel: Atheist by the Grace of God
    - J. Sage Elwell
    13. Robert Bresson: Biblical Resonance from a Christian Atheist
    - Sara Anson Vaux
    14. Roberto Rossellini: From Spiritual Searcher to History’s Documentarian
    - Matthew Page
    15. Federico Fellini: From Catholicism to the Collective Unconscious
    - Marie-Therese Maeder
    16. John Huston: The Atheistic Noah
    - Gaye Williams Ortiz
    17. Stanley Kubrick: Midrashic Movie Maker
    - Nathan Abrams
    18. In the Wake of the Bible: Krzysztof Kieślowski and the Residual Divine in Contemporary Life
    - Joseph G. Kickasola
    19. Peter Weir: Man of Mystery, Mysticism, and the Mundane
    - Anton Karl Kozlovic
    20. Cheick Oumar Sissoko: West African Activist and Storyteller
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    21. Lee Chang-Dong: Exploring the Hidden Christ
    - Fumi Ogura and N. Frances Hioki
    22. Mark Dornford-May: Transposing the Classic
    - Samuel D. Giere
    23. Serious Men: Scripture in the Coen Brothers Films
    - J. R. Daniel Kirk
    24. Liberative Visions: BiblicaL Reception in Third Cinema
    - Antonio D. Sison
    25. The Reception of Biblical Films in India: Observations and a Case Study
    - Dwight H. Friesen
    26. “A Ram Butts his Broad Horns again and again against the Wall of the House”: The Binding Myth in Israeli Film
    - Anat Y. Zanger

    Part III: Voices from the Margins
    27. Judaism and Antisemitism in Bible Movies
    - Adele Reinhartz
    28. Ethnicity and Biblical Reception in Eve and the Fire Horse
    - Stephenson Humphries-Brooks
    29. A Slave Narrative for the “Post-Racial” Obama Age
    - Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
    30. The Temptation of Noah: The Debate about Patriarchal Violence in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah
    - Erin Runions
    31. Gay Male Villains in Biblical Epic Films
    - Richard A. Lindsay
    32. Imperialism in New Testament Films
    - Jeremy Punt

    *This is based on the number of pages in the proofing copies I have seen. Final version may differ significantly.

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    Tuesday, March 26, 2013

    Il Messia (1975)

    Rossellini's final film, Il Messia, is, as one might expect, unusual for a Jesus film. Rather than starting the story with Mary and Joseph, or John the Baptist, or Jesus about to ride into Jerusalem, it starts 1000 years before as Israel's tribal leaders seek to persuade Samuel that they ought to mimic other tribes and have a king. Samuel and God disagree, but reluctantly give way, with warnings about the consequences if they do. If they accept a king he will charge taxes, press their young men into service and cause a variety of other problems. The Israelites however are not for turning, Saul is anointed king and it is no long before Samuel's status as a prophet is cemented. Soon we see Saul's army taking advantage of their possession and in one, rather shocking scene, hacking up a cow in the name of the king.

    It's significant then that when the film finally begins the story of Jesus it begins in the court of Herod. Herod is even more corrupt and even more hated than his predecessor. When rumour spreads that he has been killed the people cause such an uproar that Herod makes vicious plans to be enacted upon his death. If the people won't mourn out of their love for Herod, he will give them something else to grieve about, just so his passing is accompanied by the sound of wailing. Clearly, if power corrupts, then the role of king brings with it an even more concentrated form of corruption and evil.

    It's significant too that this film is not related to the name of Jesus but instead uses one of the titles associated with kingly power - The Messiah - even though his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus is the antidote to corrupt power and kingship. It's a key theme in the film which is not only displayed in the manner of his death, but in the manner of his ministry. Few films show a starker contrast between the corrupt elite at the top of Jewish society, and between Jesus and his followers. The Jewish leaders are associated almost entirely with grand buildings either around the great temple, or in an enclosed council chamber. The film's biggest flaw is its failure to discriminate between the Jewish leaders and other leading Jews of the time.

    In contrast, Jesus and his disciples are associated with the open air, and with the ins and outs of peasant life. One of the things that people are always struck by when watching this film is the way that Jesus and his disciples continue to work with wood, or catch fish as he teaches them. Their ministry is no aimless wandering, real life very much continues. They continue to be ordinary people in that sense. What I's not appreciated until recently however is just how much of Jesus' ministry takes place in the same space. Jesus and his disciples interact on and return to the same patch of land over and over again, in the heart of a small village. In one much discussed scene we see a flashback to Jesus' childhood with Mary teaching Jesus some of the stories that he will become famous for. But what is often missed is that this scene too takes place within the same space. The whole scene is captured in one long shot as we pan across to Mary and the young Jesus before panning back across to Jesus the man talking with his disciples.

    Another striking aspect of the ministry part of Jesus' last few years is the sending out of the disciples. They begin to recount various parts of Jesus' teaching in a form recognisable to us. One of the most striking is the story of the Rich Young Man. Most Jesus films show this as an event that is happening in real time. Here it is told as an account of an event that has already happened capturing the sense of events transforming into scripture.

    There's a decisive break shortly after as we're told that the time is not 32 AD and Jesus and the disciples head towards Jerusalem. The point is indicated figuratively as well as Jesus and his followers cross a bridge. A new phase is being entered. The authorities are becoming infuriated and Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem. Interestingly the film is one of the few to get the topography correct here. My understanding is limited but Jerusalem, sits a top mount Zion meaning thos entering the city need to go up hill. But in my recollection, most films tend to show this event either on the flat or, as in The Robe amongst others, downhill into the city. The climb here is relatively steep and uphill. The small donkey strains to make it to the gates, and the sense of a king coming in humility, not in power, is made much more forcefully. It also nicely underlines the sense of Jesus' ministry culminating.

    The events of Holy Week pass by fairly quickly. Rossellini follows John in including the clearing of the temple at the start of Jesus' ministry, rather than at the end, and the question of paying taxes to Caesar is only recounted, not acted out. Judas is recruited with the minimum of fuss, and whilst the Last Supper is given decent shrift, it's not hugely extended. Indeed the naturalistic way in which this event passes off - with almost no sense of grand occasion - is a strikingly historic way of presenting the moment.

    Jesus' trial is downplayed even more. Most of the infamous words are there or there abouts, but the moment is restrained. There are no point of view shots from within the crowd, the shots are long and dispassionate, and close ups of Jesus are still relatively rare. The most active part of the scene is the entry of the quickly assembled mob who are to pick Barabbas over Jesus. There's a clear sense that these people are not representative of the quarter of a million Jews in Jerusalem that Passover. They are just the High priests cronies, quickly rounded up to pressure Pilate into submitting to their wants.

    Even more surprisingly for those acquainted with Jesus films is the absence of any procession to the cross. In fact a stations of the cross motif is almost entirely absent. The two Marys and John witness the trial, but when it ends in confusion (highlighting the language barrier which few other films even acknowledge) do not realise the sentence has been passed. When they arrive at Golgotha moments later, Jesus is already on his cross. Few of the words in the Gospels are repeated here and Jesus dies without darkness, thunder, earthquakes or a torn curtain. The scene is accompanied by a haunting children's song, present also when the boy Jesus got lost at the temple, about a cycle of violence and a breakdown in the sacrificial system.

    Even the power that could be wrought from the resurrection is stripped from the film. After a lengthy pieta, where Jesus is finally associated with the inside of a building, Jesus is buried. But the film only goes as far as to provide a Markan ending. The tomb is ending, but the closure of Matthew, Luke and John is denied us. Jesus has gone, and Mary kneels in worship, but the conclusion is far from solid and there are no appearances of the risen Messiah.

    Such an ending is consistent with the rest of the film which, barring a very low key feeding of the five thousand, omits the miracles almost entirely, continuing the approach Rossellini adopted in Atti Degli Apostoli, Stromboli, Viaggio in Italia amongst others. It is not denying the miraculous necessarily, but almost placing the viewer in the moment of its occurrence, almost unable to tell yet that something miraculous has happened. Only on reflection do we work out what has happened. Perhaps Rossellini's view was that miracles too represented a form of power, which as the fall of countless faith healers over the years has indicated, can also corrupt, In reality God may well be present with us, but his presence, and yes his transforming, renewing power, is not always discernible at the the time.

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    Friday, August 18, 2017

    The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

    Being a fan of Rossellini's The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, a regular viewer of the BBC's Versailles and having previously enjoyed director Albert Serra's El cant dels ocells (Birdsong), I've been keen to see his The Death of Louis XIV for sometime. And then there's that Truffaut box set I just bought, laden with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's earlier work.

    Unsurprisingly Serra's take on Louis lies far closer to Rossellini's version of the story than the BBC's. The slow, long takes and minimal drama that so typified Birdsong and much of Rossellini's later work is on display again here. The opening few scenes show Louis struggling to be taken even to different locations in the palace. Thereafter, he is confined to his bed as he makes his slow transition from this life to the next. France's leading physicians, and the odd quack, try their remedies in an attempt to fight off the gangrene that has set in, but it's all to no avail.

    Whilst this is undoubtedly one film that doesn't require spoiler warnings, it's interesting to consider, briefly the other ways in which this chapter in history could have been filmed. Rather than confining itself almost solely to Louis' quarters, with him present in almost every shot, another telling of the story could have focussed on the political jostlings going on in and around court; or the reaction in the surrounding kingdoms. Here however the emphasis is almost entirely on Louis, and particularly his failing body. The Sun King is revealed to be as human as the rest of us after all. Death overtakes him as it overtakes us all. In many ways the film is not so dissimilar to The Death of Mr Lazarescu or The Barbarian Invasions, only with a greater audience. The kingdom and the world beyond may be holding its breath, but all that matters is one man's life is coming to an end. It's a story told too in minute detail from a linger shot of a tray of false eyes, to Louis' slowly blackening toes, to the increasing grimness of his servants faces as they gradually begin to realise nothing can be done.

    The film's other notable feature is its lighting and cinematography, which gorgeously recreates the atmosphere of the era's Baroque paintings. Serra, and his cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, manage to strike a delicate balance between the grimness of portraying death in close up and crating beautiful art. It would be easy for one element to overpower the other, to prettify the reality of death, or to cram the film with grotesque imagery. The end result never lets us forget that Louis was both an ordinary person and an exceptional one.


    Friday, June 22, 2007

    Atti Degli Apostoli - Scene Analysis - Parts 5 to 8

    This is part of an ongoing series on the Roberto Rossellini series Acts of the Apostles (Atti Degli Apostoli). As the film was shown in 3 sections (episodes 1-4, 5-8 and 9-10) I'm copying that structure in my scene analyses of the various episodes.
    Episode 5
    Peter goes to Joppa – (Acts 9:43)
    Cornellius and Peter – (Acts 10:1-48)
    Peter Reports to the 12 – (Acts 11:1-18)
    Paul and Barnabas return to Jerusalem - (Acts 11:29-30)

    Episode 6
    [Extra Biblical Episode – Riot due to Famine]
    Death of James – (Acts 12:1-2)
    Peter's Miraculous Escape Recounted – (Acts 12:3-11)
    More of Jesus's Teaching – (John 14:16-19, 15:18-20)
    The Disciples Scatter – (Acts 12:17, 24)
    Paul and Barnabas Return to Antioch – (Acts 12:25)
    Teaching In Antioch - (Acts 7:2-5, Rom 9:25/Hos 2:23)
    Antioch Christians Fast – (Acts 13:1-2a, Matt 6:6, 16-18)
    Paul and Barnabas Sent Out – (Acts 13:2-3)

    Episode 7
    From Antioch to Pisidian Antioch - (Acts 13:4-6, 13-14)
    In Pisidian - (Acts 13:14-52, Ex 15:3-6, 1 Cor 15:20-25, Ps 22, Is 11:6, )
    Return to Antioch - (Acts 14:21-28)
    Judaisers arrive in Antioch – (Acts 15:1-2)
    Paul on the Jews and Gentiles - (Eph 2:11-19)

    Episode 8
    Council of Jerusalem – (Acts 15:3-30)
    As with the opening episodes these episodes continue to downplay the more dramatic events of the book of Acts. So here we're shown neither Peter's vision of the animals in the bed sheet, nor his escape from prison. That's not to say that the film denies them either. As with earlier examples of the supernatural, the events are reported and accepted by those that hear them.

    The effects of this technique are three-fold. Firstly, it draws attention to those events precisely because it downplays them. When James is arrested the audience is expecting Peter's arrest to follow. But Rossellini catches us unawares, and in so doing makes those over familar with the story re-consider it. Secondly it puts these events where they belong in the realm of faith. The ambiguity Rossellini gives these scenes means that the viewer interacts with them and brings their own interpretation to the experience of watching the film. Finally, it means the story reaches the viewer as it has reached most of those who have heard it over the centuries - by hearing it from someone else, rather than seeing it. In the original story only Peter experiences these events. Even the first Christians have to decide whether they accept or reject his testimony.

    One of the most striking scene of the whole film for me was when Peter decides to go to Joppa. Ironically, it stands out because actor Jacques Dumur underplays it. This lends a sense of mystery and conviction to the moment. He announces his decision and moves to implement it almost as if in a trance. It also stands out because the dangerous nature of the decision Peter makes is completely opposite to the self-preservation instinct that seems to be ensnaring the other disciples.

    I looked at how the different film makers portrayed the visits of Paul to Jerusalem and concluded that "none of these films support the minority conservative chronology (that equates Gal. 1 with Acts 9, and Gal 2 with Acts 11)". In fact this is what this film appears to do. Whilst Paul's first meeting is not shown he has clearly visited Jerusalem to meet Christians there before the events of episode 6. The Council of Jerusalem in episode 7 is therefore his third visit to Jerusalem since his conversion.

    In September last yearEpisode 7 devotes a significant amount of time to Paul and Barnabas' trip to Antioch in Pisidian. It's interesting that the film spends so long on this location as it is usually downplayed in favour of Paul's later journeys. Here it takes almost as much time as the Council of Jerusalem in episode 8. The events at Pisidian are very delicately balanced in terms of the Jewish - Christian debate. Paul is invited to speak, and whilst his oration is compelling, it feels a little bit forced and out of place, almost as if Paul has taken advantage of his hosts. The objections of the rabbi in the synagogue ("Can you say the wolf now lies down with the lamb?") seem very reasonable. The thrust of the narrative balances out these objections, but they are never convincingly defused.

    The last of these episodes in almost entirely taken up with the Council of Jerusalem. Strangely this doesn't occur in Jerusalem itself, but somewhere in the countryside surrounding it, and outside. The film often locates the disciples close to nature and this is one such example. The discussions continue for a last time, and whilst James is set up to adjudicate, he clearly doesn't carry the authority or importance of Peter, John or Paul.

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    Sunday, April 29, 2012

    Scene Comparion - Pentecost

    My small group is looking at Acts at the moment and last week there was a bit of a mix up over who was doing what and so seeing as we were at my house I suggested watching the passage fr the day (Acts 2) in some different film versions.

    Whilst there are quite a few film versions of a selection of stories from Acts a good number of them are Paul biopics and so are only really interested in Acts from the stoning of Stephen onwards. So films such as Paul the Emissary, Damascus, The Bible Collection's Paul and even, surprisingly, Peter and Paul all exclude this incident.There are however a number of films that do cover these events and here are some comments on a few of them.

    Living Bible: Acts of the Apostles (1957)

    If ever you want a stiff, very literal rendering of a story played out by men wearing tea towels, then  The Living Bible comes up trumps every time. The budgetary limitations area always obvious so for the start of Acts the Ascension is narrated and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire all occur off screen. The rest of the scene is dull in the extreme.

    Power of the Resurrection (1958)
    Peter is stuck in jail with a young Christian who is scared and so he tells the boy how he met Jesus and gained the courage he now has. So the retelling of Peter's life climaxes with Pentecost. It's strange, then, that there's no tongues of fire scene here either. We do see Annas and Caiaphas in the crowd as Peter preaches. The most interesting feature of this film, for me, is that both the younger and the older Peter are played by Richard Kiley, who would play another disciple turned writer Matthew in the Visual Bible's Matthew. What's most interesting is comparing how the film makers thought Kiley would look like as an old man, and how he actually does look. Had I not seen the latter production, I would have thought it a reasonably credible piece of make-up, but as things stand it looks more than a little naïve.

    Atti degli Apostoli (1969 - pictured)
    Overall I think Rossellini's film is my favourite of those that deal with Acts, partly because while it is still an obviously low budget piece it makes that into a virtue, rather than a constantly distracting flaw, but then I'm a big fan of Rossellini in general.

    Again there are no tongues of fire, but the sky does momentarily go dark red before the disciples burst out into the public square. It's a wonderful moment, partly because it's been preceeded by a long and rather dry exposition of the story's cultural and historical context (from one Roman to another), which both give a better feel for that context but also because the disciples sudden arrival on the scene forms a striking contrast with the more stoic Romans. Furthermore there is something ambiguous about the moment. One the one hand it evokes Joel's prophecy about the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood, but on the other the disciples' absence from the moment distances them from it, as if to break the causal link. 

    My favourite line in this story has always been Peter's "they're not drunk it's only nine o'clock in the morning: I remember laughing about that one as a ten year old at church. The majority of these films deliver it in a very po-faced and forced fashion. Here, Peter dismissively chucks it out over his shoulder as he marches through the crowd. It's reminiscent of Pasolini's Jesus making terse theological or political statements over his shoulder as the disciples struggle to keep up.

    And then there's the climax, as Peter, the disciples and a bunch of keen to be new converts all rush in a state of high excitement to a watering hole outside the city. Are they ecstatic or just mad? Rossellini leaves it up to the viewer to interpret it. I imagine both interpretations happened at the time so it's nice to see this captured in the film and both sides thrown up for the viewer to pick over.

    Incidentally, did I ever mention that this film is available to view (albeit without subtitles) here?

    A.D. (1985)
    Just as the series intercuts the story of the early church with tales of the Romans here we get the first Pentecost intercut with the Romans leading an execution. And just as the series often brings both stories together at certain critical points, so it turns out that the man who is due to be executed and is subsequently rescued is a friend of Stephen and other early Christians.

    Inside meanwhile Mary seems to be taking a leading role within the early church - you don't have to interpret it that way but it seems to be the implication. On this occasion, Mary tells a story from Jesus' childhood. And then a very quiet wind starts up inside but someone notices it's not blowing outside. The effects look dated and the soppy looks on the disciples faces are rather comical, but Peter delivers his speech with real charisma, and it's probably the best delivery of that sermon of all of these clips.

    Visual Bible: Acts (1994)
    Whilst the special effect here will hardly have broken the bank it's actually very effective. In contrast to many of the other version - and my own prior visualisation - the moment of the Spirit's coming is initially very serene rather than ecstatic. Very little else works here though. Dean Jones' narration is more obtrusive than Richard Kiley's in Matthew, the word for word aspect feels very forces and
    James Brolin is just to handsome, clean cut and all-American to pass for Simon Peter. It's interesting comparing his charismatic proto-TV-politician with the hapless dimwit played by Gerrit Schoonhoven in the Matthew film.

    Where the forced literalism really doesn't work is during the crowd's lengthy response to what they are seeing, especially the various members of the crowd taking turns to recite a selection of the nations represented there. It wouldn't have been funnier if they had all done it together Life of Brian style ("Yes we're all individuals... from Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene.)

    St Peter (2005)
    The start of this film is so awful I've never been able to get past the first quarter of an hour or so, and the relevant scene here crops up about 35 minutes in. It's certainly one of the more interesting and creative explorations of the scene. The outpouring of the spirit occurs just at the very moment that the disciples are beginning to realise that language might be a barrier to the spread of the gospel.

    Inside the moment is strikingly depicted with flames shooting up in the arches behind Peter and the other apostles. Outside however a shock-wave seems to strike everyone in sight. In contrast with the other versions Peter says very little of the sermon from Acts. So effectively this take on the story emphasises experience over explanations.

    The scene ends on a rather sour note however. A Roman soldier - the very one who was present at the death of Jesus - wants to be baptised as well, but Peter refuses. I'm interested to see how this pans out: I have a hunch the soldier in question may appear later in the film.

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    Thursday, July 18, 2013

    The Kingdom of Israel: Part 2

    One of the most interesting things about the Hebrew Bible is the emergence of different voices offering conflicting opinions, sometimes even within the same book. Arguably one of the most divisive issues in this respect seems to be the role of Israel's kingdom in relation to God's will and plan. The solemn warnings by the prophet Samuel at its inauguration take a very negative view of kingship whereas the rules of David and Solomon are idealised even despite their personal faults. By the later period of the kingdom the focus has shifted again. The main issue is no longer whether or not having a king is the right path, the key question is the manner in which the king walks along that path.

    This varying status is complicated by the length of time between the events described and their final editing into 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. The length of time covered by these books is roughly around 500 years, even before other questions around authorship and so forth are examined.

    Disappointingly, very few biblical films examine the morality of Israelite monarchy as an institution, preferring instead to focus on individual rulers within the Kingdom of Israel and issues surrounding their lives. Indeed the most significant examination of this question occurs not in a Hebrew Bible film, but in one about Jesus; Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975). Rossellini's focus here, as in many of his films, is on power and it's abuse, and so the scene where the elders of Israel persuade Samuel to create a monarchy is pivotal in showing the abuse of power in Israel and how Jesus comes in the opposite spirit. His Messiah is cut from a different cloth.

    The potential for the corruption of the monarchy system is illustrated in other ways however, namely the depiction of Saul and his fall from grace. This is particularly well embodied in Orson Welles' portrayal and the inaugural Israelite king in Saul and David. Whilst the quality of the film is poor, Welles' heavy, sweaty body evokes memories of his earlier role as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958). The impression of corruption and decay is only heightened by the cheap and poorly lit throne room set and the generally amateurish feel of the production as a whole.

    As might be expected, other films also portray Saul in a harshly negative light. Whilst a modern day therapist might look at the story of Saul and see a man troubled by mental health problems, filmmakers tend to be less specific. One notable example being 2013's miniseries The Bible. There, even in his early days as a hero Saul comes across poorly raising his crown to the sky at his coronation like a victorious sportsmen lifting aloft his new trophy. It's notable as well that in a film packed with actors bearing typicall rugged, American good looks, Saul's face is far less attractive. Indeed, few films demonstrate much empathy for Saul, a tradition that goes all the way back to the early silents David and Goliath (1908), Saul and David (1909), David and Saul (1911) and Death of Saul (1913).

    This is quite in contrast, however with the general depiction of his successor, David. The majority of David films introduce us to him before he becomes king, and focus on him as a young man, notably before the trappings of power have corrupted him. This enables the audience to sympathise with him, meaning that, where presented, his later failings are somewhat rendered more understandable.

    The most notable exception to this trend is 1951's David and Bathsheba. Whilst the film does encourage sympathy with the king, not least by casting Gregory Peck in the lead role, it's focus is almost entirely on David's latter years. His heroics against Goliath, a time when he was purer and more in touch with his god, are preserved only as a late flashback as David reflects on where it all went wrong. It nicely highlights the recurring, but subtle minority report of Saul/Kings, that power corrupts the ideals of youth.

    Nowhere is this clearer than in the story of Solomon who in his youth choses God's wisdom over riches, but ends up pursuing the latter, ultimately bringing his kingdom to the verge of bankruptcy a weakening te tribal confederation to the verge of breakdown. Such a story though is far less appealing and so films have tended to focus on the more glamourous aspects of Solomon's reign, most notably the visit of the Queen of Sheba and the implied romance in La Reine de Saba (1913), Solomon and Sheba (1959) and The Bible Collection: Solomon (1997). Whilst the damage that is done by Solomon's pursuit of wives, concubines and the political power this affords him is included in certain films, such as 1997's Solomon, generally these aspects are amongst the less memorable moments of the films.

    It would be Solomon's son however who oversaw the disintegration of the kingdom of Israel, but none of the major productions treat it as anything other than a contextual footnote on the narrative arc of another story. The divided kingdom features, primarily in the handful of films about Elijah - Athaliah, Queen of Judah (1910), Sins of Jezebel (1953), Living Bible: Elijah a Fearless Prophet (1958) and Testament: Elijah (1996) - but is perhaps best captured by the 1936 film Green Pastures where instead of portraying one particular king, it condenses them all into a single king who has set his face against God and persecuted the generic prophet who speaks out against him.

    And it is through the lens of the prophets that cinema witnesses the fall of Judah (although the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel is absent in a Hollywood history of the world), most notably the story of Jeremiah, although perhaps also the films about Judith (see Judith, film). Two major productions tell the story of Jeremiah - the fifth 'hour' of the The Bible miniseries (2013) and the 1998 biopic Jeremiah. Whilst both have their faults, not least the earlier film's mawkish love story, they also capture the chasm that has gradually appeared between the monarchy and leadership of the Jewish nation, and their supposed God. The warnings of Samuel have come to pass and Israel is about to be stripped of her monarchy forever. The two films chronicling the last days of Judah focus not on the waning monarchy, but of the rising prophets. The 1998 film is far more concerned with the ins and outs of Jeremiah's life, his struggles with God, than on the inner workings of the seat of power. Part of that focus is also on the more depressive aspects of Jeremiah's personality as manifest in his walk with God, this creating a fascinating contrast with the mental health problems of Saul. Whilst the cinematic corpus on the kingdom of Israel shows humans remaining flawed the pendulum has swung from kings to prophets, and Samuel's initial warnings about the corruption of royal power have been amply demonstrated.

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    Tuesday, November 12, 2013

    El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong)

    El Cant Dels Ocells means Birdsong, but there's barely a bird to be seen, let alone heard. It's also about the three kings, but their royalty is similarly silent. This is perhaps the least monarchical depiction of Jesus' royal visitors that I can recall, including those in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo.

    Pasolini's film has clearly had great influence on Birdsong's director Albert Serra. The starkly beautiful black and white photography, the use of ordinary looking actors and the stripped down feel are all very reminiscent of Pasolini's masterpiece. There's even an angelic figure, portrayed by a young woman, wearing a white dress that looks like it was made from a sheet.

    Yet Serra dares to go further still. As iconographic as his images are, he humanises the three kings further than Pasolini ever dared. They bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They meander their way around the opening half of the film as if their only hope is that sooner or later Odetta will launch into "Sometime I feel like a Motherless Child". But this time she never does.

    The film, with its long, static takes is reminiscent of the style of another great Italian, neorealist, Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini believed such takes created the most genuine films. Not only is the footage shorn of any artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, but it also serves to remind the viewer from time to time that this is just a film. A reconstruction, not the real thing.

    The result of the Serra's long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack is not unlike viewing a series of paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with such meaning from so little.

    So low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment creeps up without you really noticing. When the kings finally arrive there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. It's a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters.

    Yet for all it's demystifying of the royal trio, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage. And somehow the lack of an answer only drew me into the film more. It's very much in keeping with the transcendental style of film typified by directors such as Bresson and Dryer - the spirituality which permeates the film does so almost because of its meditative pace and lack of action.

    El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong) is an incredibly slow film in which nothing happens. And I feel all the better for having seen it.

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    Monday, June 18, 2007

    Back from Acts of the Apostles

    I got back at 1:00am this morning from yesterday's screening of Roberto Rossellini's Atti Degli Apostoli (Acts of the Apostles), which ran from 4:00 to 9:35 last night in London's National Film Theatre. There was a fairly good crowd, perhaps 30 or so of us in total. We watched the equivalent of 4 episodes, and then had a half hour break, watched four more, had another break, and then watched the final two episodes. (I should note that this seems to have been released both in 10 half hour episodes and in 5 hour long episodes. We were watching the 10 episode version, although the film stock had been spliced to join the episodes in pairs.

    I'm going to post my proper reflections over the next week or two probably starting by looking at the scenes in the same chunks the film was presented in, and end it with a review.

    A couple of initial reflections for now. Firstly, I was surprised that the film was in colour, hence the colour picture above. I'd assumed that it would be in black and white, (no doubt because the majority of pictures I'd seen from this film, as well as the majority of the Rossellini films which I've seen, are black and white). Whilst I did find the above image a while ago, I'd just put it down to someone colouring it in (as they have done with my special edition cover for The Hustler, or for the entirety of Pasolini's Gospel according to St. Matthew - story here).

    Secondly, I was also disappointed to find out that it was dubbed. I hate dubbed films, it tends to totally ruin them, and is a level of detachment from the original version that seems to go too far. Whilst this was no exception, I'm guessing that there simply is no English subtitled print of the film. Certainly the BFI rep apologised for the condition of the print before we started, and assured us it was the best one available. I'll settle for that in the circumstances, but I do long for a cleaned up, subtitled version of the DVD some day. I have just discovered an Italian (only) VHS of this film is available.

    Finally, the title cards called this a special catechical version of the film, which may explain why it was shorter than some versions. Both Guarner's account of this film, and a conversation I overheard suggested a longer version is available. I'm not entirely convinced. Not a great deal was left out - at least not that would account for this. I guess the designation as "catechical" suggests it was used in religious education and the like.

    One further thing to add. I also got to visit the Sacred exhibition at the British Library where I pop by occasionally on my trips to London. I plan to write on this at some later point as well.

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