• 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, July 10, 2009

    Cut to the Chase 0.5
    Two More Chapters of Mine Published

    Cut to the Chase 0.5
    Authors: Lee and Baz and Friends

    Paperback: 287 pages (Paperback)

    Publisher: Authentic Media
    Language: English

    ISBN-10: 1860247323
    ISBN-13: 978-1860247323

    Edit: Please note that one of the chapters in this book that bears my name in it's heading - "Fantasy Island" is NOT by me, but by the book's co-author Baz Gascoyne. If you ever get hold of a copy and read that chapter you'll be aware of why I'm keen to clarify that.

    I'm just about to have two chapters published in Lee and Baz's "Cut to the Chase 0.5". Lee (Jackson) is a good friend of mine going back to when we were teenagers, and as he's always been keen that his books have included contributions from his friends he has always been keen to include the odd chapter from me. Unfortunately, he got so many contributions for his last book ("Cut to the Chase") - including four chapters from me - that he decided he could only use two of the ones that I submitted.

    But eventually his and Baz's first book "Dead Man Walking" went out of print, but continued to be in demand, so they decided to re-release it with extra material. And so "Cut to the Chase 0.5" was born. The two chapters of mine that didn't make the previous book have been included in the new volume. (I'm sure there's a less complicated way to describe that, but for the present it eludes me).

    Anyway, I must say I'm pleased that these two chapters have finally made it into print. Both volumes of "Cut to the Chase" are what I guess are called men's books - written for the average bloke in the street - so the punchiness of the first two chapters was what got them printed first. However, I always felt that of the four chapters I originally submitted, these two were the strongest, and the ones that better reflected my writing style.

    "Men in Movies" is as you'd expect a discussion of some great male role models in film. The church often moans that it is depicted negatively but here are some men (and a few women) of faith, who make a difference. The film covers a fairly broad range of films from On the Waterfront to Italian for Beginners,

    The other chapter, "Lost in Translation", looks at more interactive ways of reading / studying / understanding the Bible. Amongst the things I discuss are, of course, the use of Bible Films, as well as 'bloke art' and using the comic imagination.

    The books are not yet available at Amazon, or in book stores, but should arrive imminently. They can, however, also be purchased direct from Lee and Baz's website. Also available is a new, visual edition of "Cut to the Chase". I've had no part in this, so I can say with at least some objectivity that I think this is an excellent publication. There are still relatively few books out there for visual learners, but if we get a few more like this the idea will catch on fast. The graphics are really top notch, and do well to avoid being pretentious, managing instead to retain the earthy and humorous feel of the original. I'll post a link here to so samples of the artwork when it goes up, but for now I'll stop gushing.


    Wednesday, April 26, 2006

    My first chapters in print - Cut to The Chase

    A few years ago Lee Jackson, one of my best friends, wrote a book and offered my the chance to write a chapter for it. Like a fool I declined saying I had too much on. Ultimately the book was a book for real Christian men called Dead Men Walking and did reasonably well over here - certainly a lot of blokes seemed able to relate to it. The following years were spent kicking myself for turning down such an opportunity.

    So when Lee told me he was going to write another book, with his co-writer Baz Gascoyne, and again offered me the chance to contribute, I took him up on his offer and overcompensated and submitted four chapters. Sadly they had a mountain of material and the two longest (and best) chapters didn't quite fit with the style of the rest of the book and so didn't make the cut. But the good news is that the two (page-and-a-half) "chapters" I dashed off after writing the longer ones were just what they were after, and so are being printed pretty much now.

    That said if anyone is at the National Coalition of Men's Ministries Spring Conference in Denver, or at a few other random locations across the US over the next couple of weeks you'll be able to catch Lee and Baz, and buy one of the first 200 copies of the book, called Cut to the Chase, that have been digitally printed especially for their US tour.

    Everyone else will have to wait with me for the book's release in mid-May, although you can pre-order it from them direct, or from Amazon.

    The good news is that the chapters that didn't make the cut are available to download for free from their website. I'm really pleased about this as I much prefer the two chapters that are here than the ones in the book. There also more likely to be of interest to readers of this blog.

    Men in Movies is as you'd expect a discussion of some great male role models in film. The church often moans that it is depicted negatively but here are some men (and a few women) of faith, who make a difference. The film covers a fairly broad range of films from On the Waterfront to Italian for Beginners,

    The other chapter Lost in Translation, looks at more interactive ways of reading / studying / understanding the bible. Amongst the things I discuss are, of course, the use of Bible Films, as well as Bloke Art and using the comic imagination. The page needs a bit of reformatting (and I have nothing to do with the opening quote and picture!), but it gives a good intro to some of the things I'd dearly love to see become more commonplace. Walter Wink has written a book on a similar subject called Transforming Bible Study which I'm hoping to borrow soon.

    Friday, April 02, 2021

    Das Neue Evangelium (The New Gospel, 2020)

    © Fruitmarket_Langfilm_IIPM_Armin Smailovic

    "I couldn't do a Jesus film here as Pasolini did" explains director Milo Rau, partway through The New Gospel "without including these real social problems we have and go back to the Gospel and go back to the social revolution for which Jesus stands for in his time." Charged with reworking Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) as part of Matera's stint as the European City of Culture in 2019, Rau initially headed to the ancient southern Italian town imagining a more conventional take on Pasolini's famous adaptation, but things changed when he encountered the improvised migrant settlements around the outskirts of the city. 

    The economic migrants and asylum seekers that stay there were living in severe poverty, often working on the surrounding farms for around four euros a day in stiffling conditions and returning to improvised homes without water or electricity. Rau decided this was the situation that should be at the heart of his multidisciplinary project which not only included documenting the lives of those living in temporary migrant settlements, and casting them in a Jesus film, but also taking part in non-violent marches and protests that sought to draw attention to the issues.

    In the lead role of Jesus, Rau cast African-Italian activist Yvan Sagnet, who was given the Italian Order of Merit in 2016 by Italy's then president Sergio Mattarella. Sagnet first became an activist in 2011 when working as a student labourer he witnessed first hand a colleague passing out due to heat exhaustion. The foreman docked his wages to cover the costs of getting him medical attention. Such practises are not uncommon particularly on tomato and orange farms, which are often mafia run.

    What makes Rau's "utopian documentary" so interesting is the way it juxtaposes Matera's apparent serenity with the struggles of these migrants. It was similar levels of rural southern poverty that attracted Pasolini to Matera in the first place. The lack of development that left the city unspoilt was primarily a sign of poverty. In the years since Matera doubled for Jerusalem in Pasolini's Matthew, it has been used subsequently for a string of other Biblical films including King David (1985), The Nativity Story (2006), Young Messiah (2016), Ben-Hur (2016), Mary Magdalene (2018) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004. But it's Pasolini's film that is very much front and centre here not only in terms of ideology and direct homage but also artistic form. Pasolini described himself as a "pasticheur" cobbling together disparate source material drawn from both "high" and "low" culture.1

    The film continues this tradition, but with a new twist for the 21st century. Careful shot-for-shot reproductions of scenes from Pasolini's 1964 film sit alongside documentary-style making-of footage  that recall his location scouting films such as Sopralluoghi in Palestina (1965) and Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (1970). And in weaving these two elements together Rau recalls Pasolini's tragi-comedic short from La ricotta (1962). It blurs the boundary between documentary and fiction taking "making-of" type footage and blending it back into the mix. In one shot straight out of Pasolini's film Jesus has his head bowed and eyes closed as if having breathed his last. But then teh director says "cut" and Sagnet open his eyes and breathes a sigh of relief as the camera keeps rolling beyond the end of the scene.

    This juxtaposition of contrasting images kicks in early in the film between the first and second proper scenes. One minute of Rau and Sagnet chat as they survey the beauty of Matera at sunset, the peaceful old city bathed in dusky light. Suddenly there's a cut to a roving daytime shot within one of the temporary settlement on the outskirts of the ancient city. 

    While it's the kind of contrast that Pasolini would have loved, the cross-references go far deeper than this. Rau is joined on set by the star of Il vangelo  Enrique Irazoqui, now in his mid 70s and a freeman of Matera, a status he very much appear to enjoy (alongside his role in international chess). Irazoqui fulfils several roles not only does he act as an ambassador for the film within Matera (a fan expresses their admiration for him at one point and he swiftly takes the opportunity to encourage them to come to the shooting later in the day), but also he acts as a coach to Sagnet as well as appearing in the film as John the Baptist - handing over the mantle to his cinematic successor. Moreover Irazoqui also features in the film as his younger self. Two excerpts from the 1964 film are shown firstly as Irazoqui, Rau and some of the other crew watch it from within a tiny cinema, and then later as the film is shown in the open air to a group of the migrants. 

    Rau's New Gospel also incorporates various sections of music from the original - a reminder of how transformative that music is - though interestingly it's the older, classical pieces that Rau retains. The more modern songs from Il vangelo's soundtrack are replaced by other more contemporary songs again an interesting blend of folk and more contemporary African music. 

    These direct references are complemented by more oblique ones Sagnet (out of character) arrives at a fig orchard only to find this time fig trees have been destroyed by hail and rain, rather than by Jesus' curse. And of course Pasolini's original is repeatedly recalled in views of the city (both in precisely matching compositions and 'just' in the background) and in discussions about the project they are undertaking, including that opening scene where Rau and Sagnet discuss Matera's cinematic pedigree. 

    The two also discuss Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) in this scene, and as with Pasolini's film, numerous verbal and visual references to The Passion follow. Also starring is Maia Morgenstern the actor who played Jesus' mother in Gibson's film. Here she reprises her role re-enacting identical shots, most notably during the crucifixion, but also at times evoking images of Pasolini's mother Susanna in the same role. The other scene that recalls Gibson's film is Judas' suicide where already troubled local children hound him and chase him far from the city.

    In The Passion of the Christ that sequence was one of the most troublingly antisemitic parts of the film. Here the question of race cuts in a different direction. Firstly, the children's faces do not distort (whereas in Gibson's film this perpetuated the children of the devil trope). Secondly, whereas in The Passion the issue of race centred on the depiction of those playing Jewish characters, here the suggestion is the persecution these children dish out is racially motivated. In isolation that could also be read as antisemitic, but the difference is the way the film consistently centres itself on the modern parallels. The film's terrain indicates the children here meant to be Italian not Jewish. 

    There's a similar unease during the scene with Jesus and the crowd before Pilate. Again this is one of the problematic elements in The Passion and here the question of race is at the fore as someone in the crowd racially abuses Jesus for being black. That could be read as indicating that the crowd here was loyal to Rome (is there always more of a sense of this in Italian Jesus films than in those of Hollywood I wonder?), but it could also be read as drawing a sharp divide between the proto-Christians and the Jewish people. Again the way the film persistently invades the historic footage with its modern context throws the focus heavily onto modern interpretations, but, in honesty I'm not entirely comfortable in either scene. But then I suspect I'm not meant to be.

    But perhaps the film's most disturbing scene occurs during an audition for the guards. In what feels like the film's longest shot a seemingly mild-mannered practising Catholic removes his shirt, picks up a whip and beats a plastic chair to within an inch of its life, all the while unleashing a tirade of racial abuse. The film gives little indication as to whether the man is improvising or if these are lines he has been given. Something is unmasked in that moment, but is it an unrecognised acting talent, or an indication of of the strength of racist feelings that exist towards African migrants. The options are so stark that is feels a little reckless to leave them without comment or clarification.

    In a sense, this is just one of many examples of self-perception and reality being out of step. In addition to this actor, and Matera itself (with rich tourists flocking seemingly unaware of the poverty hidden around the city's fringes) we could add the city's mayor. He chooses the role of Simon of Cyrene and is shown pontificating about how a his official role is about servanthood.2 Yet he also represents the town's authorities who are not only failing to act to alleviate the migrants suffering and exploitation, but also exacerbating it. Viable accommodation for the migrants remains empty for years. Meanwhile the mayor's police destroy even the meagre temporary accommodation some migrants had. Having visited one of the improvised migrant settlements searching for people to join his march into the city, Sagnet returns later to find the police have bulldozed it. "Foxes have dens..but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".

    The film highlights the illegality of some of this activity n(paying below minimum wage for example) and is at pains to point how rules in place to protect migrants and farm workers are either not being applied or actively broken. This is why the first words of Jesus spoken in the film are from Matt 5:17 - "I have not come to break the law but to fulfil it". This seems to be the heart of much of the activism of Sagnet and the others. The rules are in place to protect them. Often what is happening is either neglectful or illegal. 

    The film does manage to end on a positive note, a resurrection of sorts I suppose, as the church manage to provide some space for accommodation and Sagnet is able to celebrate the creation of a mafia-free brand of tomato sauce, but it's set against a backdrop of tragic stories: acquaintances and family members lost at sea, racism facing those who survive, and system that either unwillingly or deliberately works to prevents the many migrants entering the country from thriving. For all its celebration of Italian culture and )religiously inspired?) activism, this is not a film that dishes out easy answers.  

    1 - Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute. p.28
    2 - When the scene does arrive there is an interesting role reversal here. Ever since Sidney Poitier played Simon of Cyrene in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) he has often been portrayed by black actors, usually assisting a white Jesus.

    Here are some interesting links which I don't have time to embed in the above text just now.

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    Friday, January 22, 2010

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2009

    2009 was the year of the Old Testament. Whilst rumours of forthcoming Jesus films came and went, this year was all about his ancestors.

    The biggest Old Testament film of the year was Year One. Harold Ramis's comedy had a good number of laughs, and made a few interesting points, and whilst the gross-out factor was always going to feature strongly, it seemed a little more reigned in than previous outings by various members of the cast and crew. I really meant to write more about this film than I did, but unfortunately it came at the busiest part of the year for me, and I didn't get a review copy to be able to re-watch certain parts. I did get it on DVD for Christmas so maybe I'll write more this year.

    Year One wasn't the only film released in 2009 that used large chunks of Genesis for it's laughs. August saw the release of The God Complex. I owe the filmmakers a review here, but I'm not sure they're going to want to read it. I'd expected quite a bit from the film, and whilst there are certainly a few good gags early on, they peter out until all that's left is an anti-theistic rant. I'd certainly expected this to offend some, but I'd at least hoped for a good laugh. I guess it just wasn't my humour.

    One of the characters to feature in The God Complex was Job and an modern take on his story was explored in A Serious Man. I'm a fan of the Coen Brothers anyway, so their most Biblical film to date has given me plenty to think about, and I hope to see it do well at this year's Oscars.

    Modernised versions of Old Testament stories featured on the small screen this year as well. Kings attempted to modernise the story of David and Saul, but hit trouble early on, and in the end took a mid season break of several months before being allowed to run it's course. Whilst it managed to form a small but solid fan base, most reviews were only so-so, and viewing figures never matched up. 2009 was definitely the year of me not getting sent screeners, but this was the most annoying. NBC didn't send me a preview disc because I wasn't resident in the US. You guys do get what that WWW bit means don't you? So it bombed, and if the DVD price ever drops enough I might fork out and buy a copy, but I suspect it will be a while until I review it.

    Lastly there was also Tutta Colpa Di Giuda(It's All Judas' Fault) about a passion play being performed inside a prison with a Jesus of Montreal-esque double meaning.

    2009 also saw a number of Bible films released on DVD. Jesus the Christ was a new film mashed together from bits of the Visual Bible's , Gospel of Matthew. Johnny Got his Gun was a filmed version of a new stage production of the novel. There was also a special edition DVD release of The Robe as well as DVD releases for Kings and Year One.

    There was only one new book written on the subject of Bible films. Pamela Grace's "The Religious Film" looked at how a number of Bible films compared to the characteristics of hagiopics. But the year also saw a reprint of Bruce Babington and Peter Evans' classic "Biblical Epics". And on the subject of books, a couple of chapters I wrote several years ago finally saw the light in Lee and Baz's Cut to the Chase 0.5.

    As for miscellanaous highlights, the stand out event of the year was the Ancient World in Silent Cinema day, which screened a number of rare early silent Bible films. I've written a number of reviews for these films, but still have a few to attend to, if I can ever find my notes again. There was also the inaugural SBL consultation on The Bible in Film and the Reel Religion memorabilia exhibition at MoBiA. Also in this section are Ben Hur's enduring adaptability finding expression in a stageshow and on the radio.

    On a more personal note, highlights for me this year included, my talks at Greenbelt (download mp3) and Regents Theological College, as well as being interviewed by Premier Radio and TWR radio.

    2010 may produce a Jesus film or three, although I wouldn't be shocked if none of those lined up actually appear, and rumour has it that the BBC/HBO version of The Passion (although it may be under a different name).


    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    Father Figures in Bible Films

    Over at Arts and Faith, Steven D. Greydanus has been asking "about father figures in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking". It's a subject I've thought about a few times, particularly in writing my chapter on "Men In Movies" for Cut to the Chase 0.5. So I've contributed a few ideas over there, but, unsurprisingly, I got to think of the depiction of Father's in Bible films.

    This is interesting to me because the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is full of spectacularly bad parents. Jacob favours one son so much his brothers sell him into slavery. Jesse thinks David is so unimportant he pretends he doesn't exist when the important man of God comes by. Adam brings his son up so badly that he kills his brother (even without video games). Moses' dad leaves his wife to float him down the river, and Abraham actually tries to kill his son. And don't get me started on Lot. Not exactly a great track record.

    Bible films, on the other hand, are another matter, reflecting not only the original text but also contemporary culture.

    The first film to spring to mind was the father-son relationship in The Bible Collection's Jesus (pictured). Admittedly the film focuses on the relationship between Joseph and his grown up son, but there is clearly a very strong relationship between the two. The film's pre-credit sequence shows Joseph comforting Jesus after a nightmare whilst the two are on the road looking for work, and as the credits roll we see a long shot of the two walking across the landscape talking, joking, touching and Joseph passing on his wisdom. It's such a nice shot that I'm surprised I've not noticed it before. The two men work together and there's a good mix of banter, humility and respect displayed in the opening scenes. Joseph's death propels Jesus into pursuing his ministry, but not before his moving, and unanswered, prayers for his heavenly Father to bring back to life his earthly Father.

    Another Bible film with adult Father to Son relationships is the African film La Genèse. The film, in one sense is about two fathers, Jacob and Hamor, and their wayward sons who trouble them and dishonour their names.

    The Bible story which most often features a child is the Moses story, though sadly it's not Moses' frequently ignored son Gershom, but the son of the Pharaoh who is fleshed out. There are a variety of approaches here. DeMille's original Ten Commandments depicts the boy as a brat who even kicks Moses so there's very little sympathy when he's wiped out in the tenth plague. This changes a bit in DeMille's 1956 version where Ramsees' care for the boy is one of his redeeming features. The most striking depiction of the Pharaoh and his son is from the silent film L'Exode which depicts the relationship between father and son so positively that you end up wondering which side you are meant to be rooting for.

    And then, of course, there are the films about Abraham and Lot, none of which really stick out in their portrayal of fathers, save perhaps Sodom and Gomorrah which I watched recently. There Lot is the over bearing father of two adult daughters, but he's one of those fathers who makes strict rules, but spends so little time with his daughters that he really has no idea what they are up to. Perhaps therein lies the lesson.


    Thursday, June 22, 2006

    "Cut to the Chase" Finally Published

    Back in April I mentioned a (then) forthcoming book called "Cut to the Chase" that a friend of mine had co-written and to which I had contributed a couple of very short chapters. After a two month delay in publishing, the book was finally released on the 8th of June, or thereabouts - already a very significant day for me!

    Having re-read my two chapters, they are better than I remember them, although I'm still slightly disappointed that the two chapters I really cared about didn't make the cut, as I'm told they didn't really fit with the overall thrust of the book. You can still read them though here, and here.
    (I have nothing to do with the picture at the top of that second article by the way).

    I've also read the rest of the book, which is definitely well worth a read. In particular anyone who finds they can't really relate to the "masculine Christianity" of books such as "Wild at Heart" might find this is more their cup of tea.

    Friday, March 31, 2006

    Improvements to the Blog

    I've made a few changes this week, which have been slow in coming, and some have been rather phased in, so apologies if things looked a bit amateurish for a while. To save you guessing what I've done here's a brief overview

    1 - Header Bar
    Now at the top of the page there are a few crucial links, a quick link to a page you can use to contact me, links to projects I have coming out at Easter (an appearance on Channel 4's Bible films documentary The Passion: Films, Faith and Fury, and a book called "Cut to the Chase" in which I have a couple of very short chapters). There's also 3 filmographies...

    2 - Film Indexes
    (Yes I know that should be indices, but it just doesn't sound right.)
    In order for visitors to the site to find info on specific film straight away, I've added 3 film indexes, one for Hebrew Bible / Old Testament films, one for Jesus films and one for films based on the rest of the New Testament. Each one has links to blog posts, my reviews, scene guides and significant articles by other writers. I'll be updating that regularly, so that hopefully nearly every film will have links.

    3 - Additional "Jesus Film Articles" Sidebar
    This is a collection of some of the best articles on the web about Jesus films. The authors of these have covered a number of Jesus films in each article, rather than just one, and I'll expand it as I go on. Recommendations would be much appreciated, os if you have one (or you yourself have written one I've not included), please let me know.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2006

    Rev. Peter Jackson (1949-2006)

    I received sad news yesterday. Peter Jackson, who was the vicar of St. Barnabas church in Leeds where I spent my teenage years, died yesterday after a battle with cancer. He was a remarkable man who greatly inspired me as a teenager in my walk with God, not just as a teenager but as Dad to my good friend Lee Jackson. Not only was he full of wisdom, but he was also someone that took risks and released people (giving me many opportunities for service that most teenagers would be denied), and a great encourager - a living demonstration of the spirit of the man our church was named after.

    He'd worked as an electrician in Teeside for much of his life before finding God and training to become a vicar at St. John's College, Nottingham, and serving as a curate in York. After St. Barnabas he was vicar of St. Luke's church in Holbeck. He had recently retired, but kept active, living passionately for God, even urging others his age to do the same in a chapter in Lee's recent book "Cut to the Chase".

    He was also the first person I heard really talk about Jesus films, whether it was joking about how Robert Powell never blinked, or discussing how films in the 50s only showed Jesus's back or his arms. He also published a review of Last Temptation of Christ when it was first shown on Channel 4. His review refused to over react, pointing out some of the film's strengths as well as it's weaknesses. I think that left an indelible impression on me at least.

    He leaves behind his wife Avril, his children Angela and Lee, and 4 Grandchildren: Amy, Philippa, Lauren and Rhea. Peter often talked about Heaven, and it was perhaps fitting that I had been giving two talks on the subject of future hope on the day I heard he had died - even quoting him at one point. Two things he said stick out in particular. Firstly, how he expected God would point out various people to us who were only there because of our actions, and secondly, how he looked forward to playing his trumpet there. Heaven's gain is our loss.

    Thursday, December 03, 2009

    Reel History: A Man for All Seasons

    I'm a big fan of The Guardian's Alex von Tunzelmann's Reel History film reviews (I've previously mentioned her reviews for Life of Brian and the 1956 The Ten Commandments). So I was pleased to see that von Tunzelmann recently reviewed Fred Zinnemann's 1966 film A Man For All Seasons about the life of Thomas More. Ok so it's not a Bible film, but it is a historical film about a religious character, and as I wrote a little about it in my film chapter in Cut to the Chase 0.5 I thought I'd mention it. And, of course, it could also be classed as a hagiopic, and whilst it doesn't fit with Pamela Grace's classification, the exception only makes it more interesting. Hagiopics (according to Grace) are not only films about the life of a saint, but the story about their divine encounters, suffering and experience of God coming good. In A Man for All Seasons however More suffers plenty, but there is no divine encounter and ultimately God does not intervene.

    Anyway, it's an interesting read. Anyone wanting a second opinion could try either Marilyn Ferdinand's review (Ferdy on Films) or Steven D. Greydanus's (Decent Films).