• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.


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    Matt Page

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    Friday, February 17, 2017

    The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)


    The Last Days of Pompeii is one of the few Bible movies that is also a disaster movie. From the moment it start we know how it's going to end - badly. It's title is the ultimate spoiler, in a genre hardly renown for its unexpected plot twists. Indeed perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to span the time from well before the death of Christ circa 30 A.D. to the eruption of Vesuvius 49 years later within the adult lifetime of its leading character, Marcus (Preston Foster).

    Marcus is already reasonably old when we first encounter him several years before the death of Jesus. His wife is run over by a chariot and Marcus ends up having to accept a fight in the gladiatorial arena to pay her medical bills. Yet despite his victory as a gladiator, when he returns home he is too late to save her life. Angered and grieving Marcus returns to the arena, works his way up the pecking order with success after success until he is able to retire and diversify into supplying fresh slaves for the arena.

    Throughout the early part of the film Marcus maintains something of a moral core, even though he is pulled this way and that by anger, grief and the need to overcome poverty. So when his victory over an opponent leaves a young boy orphaned, Marcus decides to adopt him. Yet in order to be able to support the boy (Flavius) he takes a job capturing slaves and making orphans of their children - a point that is nicely underlined by a fade between a shot of a captured slave holding his son and one of Marcus back in Rome holding Flavius in a similar pose.

    All of this is part of Marcus' transition from all round good, but tough, guy in the opening scenes to someone with a good heart increasingly trapped and shaped by their decisions, decisions made based on very limited options (at least that is what we are led to believe). But this is never really very convincing on either front. For someone with a supposedly good heart Marcus is persuaded to commit atrocities all too easily. Conversely, for someone struggling to make even a basic living honestly, he seems to climb to the top of the greasy pole, with all its wealth and power, with consummate ease.

    Crucially, Marcus has a chance encounter with an old woman who precedes to tell him, (whilst ominously starring at the ceiling), that he must take Flavius to meet "the greatest man in Judea". So based on little more than the advice of her and one of her comrades, Marcus and Flavius head to Judea intent on going to meet Pontius Pilate. Before he gets to Jerusalem, however, they almost have a chance encounter with Jesus, except this time he's not quite in the mood for taking vaguely sage-like pronouncements from total strangers, so he presses on to the capital. The filmmakers offer little plausible reason for this inconsistency; it's just an eye-rollingly clumsy plot device, scantily clad in some cod-theology about fate and determinism. No-one quite walks on and says "Ah, but God moves in mysterious ways", but someone definitely thought it. At some point. For at least about two seconds before deciding to worry about something else instead.

    Not dissimilarly Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) is sat musing about his his need to find someone to covertly infiltrate and hamstring the Ammonites. "If I could only find a man" he utters, seconds before his servant mentions that our former champion gladiator turned horse-trader is coincidentally waiting in the lobby. Marcus agrees to go out stealing Ammonite horses for Pilate, but when he returns Flavius has been in an accident with a horse and is almost dead. As luck would have it, though, there's "a young man, a wandering healer passing through the village..." and so Marcus and his son get to have their chance encounter with Jesus after all.

    Despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) had only debuted eight years previously, and was probably still doing the rounds here and there, the film opts not to show the face of Jesus. It's possible that this decision was based purely on artistic motives, but it's far more likely that it was indicative of the level of outrage that had been unleashed by Claudette Colbert's nipple popping out of that bath of milk in The Sign of the Cross three years previously. Things had certainly soured and it's striking to see how quickly the atmosphere had changed.

    Instead of filming Jesus, the filmmakers shot much of the healing sequence (sorry about the plot spoiler, but it was never going to turn out another way) from Jesus' point of view. Marcus carries Flavius to the front of the crowd with his eyes, and the eyes of the crowd, all transfixed on the camera. The heavenly music kicks in, there's a wide, reverse shot from a distance behind the crowd, and then they and Jesus obligingly wander stage left, leaving Marcus on his knees and Flavius back on his feet.

    Flavius's healing, though, appears to have been more or less Jesus' last. By the time Marcus has returned to Jerusalem Jesus is already on trial. Pilate washes his hands of it all, of course, and his duplicitous dealings with Marcus could easily have been spun into suggesting it was all for show. But the film opts instead for a shell-shocked Pilate putting his head in his freshly washed hands and murmuring "What have I done? What have I done?". There's some nice double meanings in their initial conversation, as Marcus nice-but-dim fails to appreciate that his new found friend is somewhat shell-shocked, but soon Pilate is complaining that he was "forced" to condemn that "poor man" and coming out with banalities such as "Oh, let men wallow in the quicksand they have made of life" and "Pin your faith to gold, Marcus". Whilst there's hardly any mention of the fact that the "mob" is predominantly Jewish the description of them, and the exaggerated extrapolation of their actions (to looting and violence) is certainly troubling from an anti-Semitism point of view.

    In trying to circumvent this still-angry mob, Marcus inadvertently gets spotted by the man who led him to Jesus in the first place, who begs him to intervene to prevent him being crucified. When Marcus asks what he, one man, can do, all his friend can suggest is "You can die for him" without really explaining what that would do to help. He does lay a good guilt trip on him though. "When your world crumbles about you, you'll understand what you have done today". "Crumbles" geddit? I wonder how this is going to end...

    Two contrasting shots of hilltops (three crosses atop Golgotha versus a smoking Vesuvius) lead to a jump ten or so years into the future. Flavius is almost grown up (and played now by John Wood) and Marcus, who now runs the arena, is wearing a greyish-looking wig. Unbeknown to his father Flavius is stashing away runaway slaves, intending to transport them to an uninhabited island, before a major celebration in the arena the next day. Flavius is somewhat haunted by his memory of Jesus, an encounter his guilt-hardened father is trying to pass off as a dream.

    Things come to a head when Pontius Pilate turns up for dinner amid news that a slave has been captured who is going to reveal the hiding place of the others. Flavius refuses to "keep silent forever in the face of injustice and brutality" recalling his 'dream' of Jesus saying "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". Marcus tries to reassert his lie. Pilate cannot. Shame falls upon the two of them and suddenly everyone remembers exact quotations from their wordless encounter a decade (or five) before. Flavius returns to the slaves' hiding place, in undoubtedly the best photographed scenes of the entire film; the tight compositions and moody lighting perfectly supplementing the slaves' fear and paranoia. Flavius is accused of being a spy just as the soldiers arrive to capture them

    The re-capture of the slaves is good news however for Marcus and the rest of the town's elite, deemed a better omen than smoke from Vesuvius. The games contain the most spectacular scenes of the movie, the grand arena, replete with a giant statue of a naked soldier with only a sword to preserve his dignity. When Vesuvius 'unexpectedly' explodes, initially with all the special effects expertise of a high-school chemistry set, the statue is the first thing to go, crumbling like a sandcastle on a spin-dryer. The scenes of the eruption are spectacular, howver, not least for the sheer scale of their destructiveness. DeMille's falling masonry of 1949 has nothing on this in terms of spectacle. If these scenes could have, perhaps, used more meaningfully human interactions, then the shots of people drowning in the choppy waters as they attempt to escape the lava pouring down the hill are, nevertheless, rather chilling.

    I'm reminded of what Michael Wood ([1975] 1989: 178-182) says about "what is perhaps the most interesting of all the set scenes in the epic: the great crash." I'll quote at length (albeit abbreviating where possible).
    ...the idea of waste in these movies receives its fullest expression here...Here are costly sets, carefully built constructions, going up in smoke or toppling down in ruins, the very feats of engineering we have just been admiring are now thrown away. This is visible expense, like the crowd of extras, only more startling. This is money being burned...It is pure excess, a ritual expression of lack of need...Having all that cash to throw away is a sign of (apparent) financial health. But actually throwing it away is a sign of moral health, a sign that you are not hampered by your riches...I don't think this is a reaction against a past of puritan prescriptions. It is rather the oblique expression of a faith. Here is God's plenty...to save money or gasoline or energy is to doubt the profusion of Gods gifts...For many modern Americans worldly goods are so abundant that that it becomes a form of scandal to want to hang on to any of them for very long.
    Here, in particular, the scale of this destruction is particularly suited to the story (or should it be vice-versa). Marcus starts the film care free and poor. It is only when he learns to worry about the future that he gets dragged down into immoral behavious. The message of Pompeii's destruction at the end of the film -- and it is a destruction quite in contrast to what actually happened. In real life Pompeii was preserved intact by falling lava, mud and ash; here it is levelled, destroyed by a shaking from below rather than above -- the destruction is Marcus' world being destroyed, along with his false gods and, I suppose, his idol of money. (SPOILER: Only once this happens is he liberated and able to see a vision of Jesus welcoming and accepting him with open arms. END SPOILER).

    From a historical angle the few nice historical touches (like Marcus burning a pinch of incense to the gods) do nothing to paper over the monumental gaps in the historical masonry - the gleefully disregarded for credible chronology being only one fault line among many.

    The directors of this film (Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper) came to it having had great success with King Kong (1933) and their ability to create iconic spectacle and destruction comes good again. Combining models with live action footage is again very much to the fore. The impressive nature of these few final spectacular scenes is not enough, however, to rescue the film from its tiresome, overly earnest performances and the paper-thin characterisations. The plot of Kong was so extreme that weaknesses in these areas didn't matter. But this is an epic and the demands of believable plot and half-decent characterisations are greater (albeit only a little bit greater). Making a giant gorilla both terrifying and sympathetic is one thing. Doing the same for Foster and Wood is entirely another. Ultimately last Days is more giant turkey than great ape.

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    Thursday, February 16, 2017

    How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood


    Whilst the late nineties had proved a fruitful time for television and church backed projects, by the turn of the century the major studios had considered the Bible film genre was dead. The experimental period had provided some success with smaller projects, but the vitriol, and indeed threat to life, faced by the makers of Last Temptation of Christ had led them to the conclusion that any similar projects were extremely risky; if anything the Christian right which mobilised itself in response to the film had grown in size, influence and power. Yet at the same time, with falling church attendances and subject matter so significantly at odds with the zeitgeist of the new millennium, it seemed unlikely that a Biblical Epic could find a large enough audience to cover its production costs, let alone prove profitable.

    Such was the degree of scepticism that even a major Hollywood star, who had enjoyed success with an historical epic at the box office and with critics, was unable to find backing for film about the death of Jesus. Part of this was perhaps due to the uncompromising vision of Gibson's film. Rather than a family friendly, bland Jesus film such as The Greatest Story Ever Told it would be ultra violent and in a foreign language. If Hollywood Execs had even considered the possibilities for a moment, they would have swiftly dismissed the possibility of a Christian audience turning up en masse for a violent, R-rated film.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and we now all know the end of the story. Rejected by every major studio, and no doubt a few minor ones along the way, Gibson decided to fund the project himself. He spun the studios rejection into a David and Goliath story, worked tirelessly to pitch it to church audiences and gain the support of their leaders, and, as a result, the film made a huge profit. The resulting success spawned a myriad of new Biblical Epics, both at the cinema and on television, but, as with the supposed Golden Era, whilst some proved successful many have failed to find an audience.

    In many cases this is because the studios that failed to predict The Passion's success, continued to mis-diagnose the reasons why it proved successful. Much of the failure of the subsequent films suggests that those responsible for green-lighting these projects had drawn the wrong conclusions. I want to highlight some (and I stress "some") of the reasons why The Passion did well and perhaps why subsequent releases did not.

    Fragmentation and Tribal Identities
    If 2016 taught us anything (and it seems clear that for many people it did not) it's that we're living in increasingly factionalised times, times where the different factions are not only becoming more and more distinct from those in other factions, but where each is starting to get caught in a self-reinforcing bubble, where the stories, news, beliefs and practice of those within one bubble bear very little relation to those of other factions.

    For decades filmmakers and promoters tried to try and hold the different factions together in the hope of appealing to enough of them to make their product worthwhile. What Gibson did however was to ignore very large sectors of the market in order to focus more squarely on other factions. So very few of the middle class, city-dwelling, younger audience have seen Gibson's film. Indeed I get the impression that the majority look at it with disdain. But for practising Christians from more conservative households, Gibson's uncompromising vision was exactly what they felt they had not been served by the Hollywood system.

    One of Gibson's key approaches, then, was not to bother to court the whole population, but to focus on the conservative, church-going population. He figured if he could get them on side in sufficiently large numbers then he didn't need to attract those from ourside that demographic. This was the basket into which he put all his eggs, and it paid off.

    Grassroots, word of mouth and social media
    Gibson also rejected the more traditional top-down marketing approach of spending a huge amount in buying premium media advertising space and reinforcing the message again and again. Instead he practically reinvented the grassroots campaign. Focusing in on his demographic he realised that church leaders held the key. By both dazzling them with his star power (humbly attending their conferences), focusing on their common ground (e.g. a "manly" Jesus, a traditional version of the story), building a strongly persausive case for the areas where their preferences may have differed initially (e.g. using original languages) and speaking their language ("The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film...I was just directing traffic."), he got church leaders on board. Not only were they interested in his project, but they were fully on board, convinced that this created an opportunity to forward their agenda ("an evangelistic opportunity"). Ultimately they were so convinced that not only did they encourage, and in some cases direct, their congregations to buy tickets for the film (thus doing the job of marketing) they also booked out cinemas and sold tickets en masse (thus also doing the job of sales).

    Whist this was before the advent of social media as we know it today (before the emergence of Facebook and Twitter) there was still an enormous amount of sharing on websites, blogs and discussion fora. For example, the Arts and Faith forum where I was active at the time had both a -pre-release thread and a post-release thread adding up to over 1150 posts between them. And the film's marketing team didn't need to buy advertising space in the various glossy Christian magazines, as they were all covering the film in their features sections. It was, after all, what everyone was talking about.

    Subsequent Bible filmmakers have also tried to promote their films by these routes, by emulating much of what Gibson did. Whilst it was unlikely that any film would reproduce The Passion's success, there have been very few real successes and it is notable that when the two big Bible films of 2014 were released this strategy was relegated to being only a minor player. Part of this is due to audience fatigue - as the novelty of being courted wore off each new appeal generated less interest - but also a lot of the subsequent pitches to churches failed to capture what Gibson brought. Yes some of that was the kind of star power that very few could bring, but there were other aspects of the appeal to churches that were not picked up on that might have been easier to reproduce and I want to look at one or two of those now.

    Muscular Christianity
    As alluded to above, Gibson's Jesus was a "manly" Jesus. In the run up to the film's release he talked several times about the weaknesses of previous silver-screen Christs and it was not hard to imagine that he was often referring to the slender Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (see the various quotes in my old piece "Film: A New Passion"). Instead Gibson produced the most violent Jesus film ever made and presented his hero as a figure who was not unlike the Martin Riggs character that Gibson played in Lethal Weapon (1987). Like Riggs Gibson's Jesus could suffer immense pain and yet instead of giving up would come back for more (such as the flagellation scene where Jesus defiantly drags himself to his feet after an already heavy beating). Gibson's William Wallace also comes to mind.

    What's interesting about this is that certain sections of the church have traditionally protested against sex and violence on our screens. There's an argument to say that these are not all the same groups of people, and certainly there's some truth in that. At the same time think there are many who would hold to that argument in general but would make exceptions in certain cases such as this.

    Later Bible films, like The Nativity Story (2006) reverted to the model of Bible Films as family friendly fare. It flopped. In contrast one of the few productions to take a more violent approach to the scriptures, 2013's The Bible proved more successful. It's perhaps an uncomfortable conclusion but, for me, the Passion's violence was part of the reason it was so successful with the Christian market. That might seem like a shocking thing to say, and is perhaps an uncomfortable opinion, yet the filmmakers could not have been more clear about the film's level of violence. "By the time [audiences] get to the crucifixion scene, I believe there will be many who can't take it and will have to walk out - I guarantee it" actor Jim Caviezel said as part of the film's promotion and there is a profusion of similar quotes.1 Indeed most of the claims about the film's historical accuracy were really claims about the film's 'accurate' depiction of the violence to which Jesus was subjected.

    This was a message that strong appealed to many Christians. Fed up of being seem as effeminate for following Jesus they yearned for a films such as Gibson's which reaffirmed that following Christ was not a slur on one's manhood. This leads nicely into the next reason for the film's success.

    The Religious Right's Persecution Complex
    For years now many parts of evangelical Christianity - on both sides of the Atlantic - have had something of a persecution complex. This seems to exist in spite of the fact that many Christians in other parts of the world are actually being persecuted and tortured for their faith. So the incredibly rare stories of staff being asked not to wear religious symbols, or not being allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexuality have been used to stir up tremendous feeling in the UK. In the US there's been no shortage of claims that Christianity is under attack. It's no coincidence that the most visited article on my whole blog is the one that explains that the rumours about a film being made about a gay Jesus are false.

    To an audience soaked in this mindset Gibson's tale of his struggle to find funding for his pet project struck a familiar chord. How typical of the liberal elitist Hollywood to reject such a film, and so it quickly rallied people to Gibson's "cause". A similar things happened recently with Donald Trump's ascent to the presidency. Trump played the card of Christian persecution and found an evangelical base that voted 81% in his favour. He continues to claim he is being persecuted even though he is now the most powerful man in the world.

    By pitting himself as some sort of David against an anti-Christian Hollywood Goliath, Gibson grew a huge base of support all who shared his passion to see a decent portrayal of Jesus to supplant the weak film Christs of King of Kings and Jesus Christ, Superstar. No-one really stopped to ask what kind of David had enough personal wealth to be able to sink £25 million dollars into making the film on their own. Nor what he would do with all the profit if it proved to be successful.

    What is most troubling about this reason behind the film's success is not the opposition Gibson faced initially, when trying to make the film, but the way he handled the questions people raised about the content of the film. Many, on hearing that Gibson had used Katherine Emmerich's ant-Semitic "Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" as one of his major sources, were concerned that the film too would be anti-Semitic. Instead of listening to these voices, seeking to learn from them, act, amend any content that he'd not previously realised would prove troubling and promote the film with even greater endorsement, he chose instead to go to war. He again played the persecution card, marking out those who questioned the film's potential for anti-Semitism as a powerful enemy when they lacked even a fraction of the resources he possessed. Sadly this further rallied many parts of the church to his defence, many of whom failed even to see the significant difference between the words in scripture and the interpretation of those words in a film. Buying a ticket for the film became seen as a way of supporting Gibson, and by extension the Bible, against those who would criticise it.

    Supernatural Endorsement
    One other thing which is notable about the marketing of this film, which has tended to be absent in later biblical films is the way Gibson used different forms of supernatural endorsement for his film. This is in fact nothing new and goes back to several of the Jesus films from the silent era. DeMille for example used some of the self-same methods. There are at least four different strands here.

    Firstly there are the claims for inspiration. The most famous is Gibson's claim "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic"2. Even at the time I remember there being debate about whether this was a 'pitch' or Gibson's genuine belief (and perhaps it was both), but certainly it had the effect of persuading people that it was something they should go and see. Enough people believed the film was, in some way God inspired.

    Secondly there were the accounts of miracles as well as what will have sounded, to many, as attacks from the enemy. The most memorable of these are the claims that twice people were struck by lightning during the filming of the crucifixion (including leading actor Jim Caviezel). In previous generations that might have been seen as God being against the film rather than in favour of it, but here the fact that one of them "just got up and walked away" was taken as evidence that God was protecting the cast and crew.3. In the same piece Gibson also talked about "people being healed of diseases".4

    The third way, which also crops up in on of the pieces that was circulated long before the film's release, is the mention of conversions during filming. "Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converting to Christianity".5 this ties in with Gibson's hope that the film would have the "power to evangelise"6. This later theme was picked up by church leaders who began to market the film, on Gibson's behalf, as an evangelistic tool.

    Lastly there is that infamous almost-endorsement by the Pope. Whether or not the Pope really said "It is as it was" and the story behind the quotes hasty retraction is irrelevant, that became the story and the endorsement of it from the church's high office. Even though the majority of those buying tickets may not have been Roman Catholics, the words attributed to the Pope became gospel and even if he didn't actually say them, his team weren't fighting too desperately to retract them. This combined with Gibson's unsubstantiated claims for historical accuracy gave the film further credibility - a crucial criterion for many evangelicals.

    In addition to these three factors there are also three further lessons that could be picked up from The Passion's success.

    The Growing Christian Audience
    Gibson's genius was to realise that there was a growing Christian audience out there who would respond positively to the right product. This audience had not had a great deal of specifically tailored quality content in the years leading up to The Passion's release and it's questionable as to whether they've had a great deal of it since. America's culture wars and the emergence of a more vocal form of Christianity, prepared to show its loyalty to the brand had created a growing, and in some ways new, market. Whilst many of the films that have subsequently sought to exploit that market have failed, a greater number have succeeded than ever did before.

    Diminishing Influence of (Liberal) Experts
    One of the quotes that so typified the Brexit debate in the UK was the pronouncement of the (then) Lord Chancellor Michael Gove that the "people in this country have had enough of experts". With similar sentiments being felt on the other side of the Atlantic as well it reminds me of how many people spoke out about the more problematic aspects of the film (the excessive violence, the anti-Semitism, etc.) without causing any change in the final film, or any significant impact on its box office success. The not-at-that-point disgraced Ted Haggard's claim that the film "conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was"7 was repeated far more times than those of biblical scholars, with their expert knowledge of the gospels and the world in which Jesus lived and ministered. Many objections by those who had a greater knowledge of the relevant issues were waved away in the rush to endorse such a powerful evangelistic tool. The article I had written for a Christian magazine weighing the pros and cons of the forthcoming film (available here), for example, was dropped at the last minute for one talking about how it was going to usher thousands of new converts to Christianity. Not that I'm bitter (I am).

    Diminishing Influence of Film Critics
    Not unrelated to the above, a pattern has emerged subsequently in the Christian press surrounding the release of major new Bible films. When such a film is released numerous Christian magazines turn not to their in-house film critic, or even to an experienced Christian film critic, but to a popular/influential leader and/or speaker instead who will give their opinions on the likelihood of the film "reaching" those outside the church or how the film coincides with their own personal idea of what Jesus was like.

    But this is not just a problem with the church. In the decade and a bit since the release of the film it has become increasingly clear that the majority of people don't really care, or even agree with, what film critics say. Few, if any, of the top performing films at the box office will appear on critics' end of year lists and whilst Oscar nominations will boost a film's earnings, they are hardly a predictor for financial success (and many critics look down on the Oscar nominations which the general population often considers too highbrow). Back in early 2004 critics were not exactly expecting great things from The Passion. The studios valued such opinions then and perhaps even shared them. Today they would be unlikely to take them seriously. Film critics no longer have the power to derail a movie let alone one with the power to evangelise.


    1 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News - A very violent 'Passion' (reproduced here). January 26, 2003.
    2 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 28, 2003
    3 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News - A very violent 'Passion' (reproduced here). January 26, 2003.
    4 - Holly McClure - ibid.
    5 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 28, 2003
    6 - Kamon Simpson - ibid.
    7 - Kamon Simpson - ibid.

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    Wednesday, February 08, 2017

    The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 1 - What the Experts Say


    This is the second in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
    In my last post in this series I was looking at the arguments for and against there being a Biblical Epic genre. In this posts I want to consider what the defining characteristics of that genre might be if it is to be accepted that said genre exists.

    Wood (1989: 173) describes how the "ancient world of the epics was a huge, many-faceted metaphor for Hollywood itself" and how the heroes of these films are not Moses or Ben-Hur, but DeMille and Wyler. For him one of the key characteristics is the "myth of excess" (1989: 174). He also lists several others:
    "The basic elements of the epic seem to run from the minor ones like the music....to relatively major ones like certain sturdy , straight-faced acting styles to absolutely essential elements like the big scenes (the org, the ceremonial entry into the city, the great battle, the individual combat, and where possible, a miracle or two) and the big, earthshaking themes." (Wood 1989: 175).
    Wood is writing about the epic genre in general however, rather than the Biblical Epic specifically so some of these may be less essential than others.

    Like Wood, Grace (2009) is also concerned with a broader genre, only in her case it is the "Hagiopic" (a religious biopic which could be set in a relatively modern era such as 1943's The Song of Bernadette) rather than the (historical) epic. She lists "several of the most striking characteristics of the traditional hagiopic" as follows:
    "...the typical locations, characters, and sounds; the genre-specific interweaving of chronological tome and a sense of eternity; the concern with suffering; the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm; the nostalgia for an earlier era; and the depiction of persecution and painful death of an innocent person. There are also generic narrative patterns. One typical narrative element involves sceptics, doubters, or cynical characters, who make snide comments about religious belief near the beginning of the film, only to be proved wrong at the end..." Grace (2009: 13)
    In contrast Babington and Evans (1993: 4) take a different approach, dividing the genre into "three sub-types of film: the Old Testament Epic; The Christ Film; and the Roman/Christian Epic" they do also note a few characteristics that cover all three genres. For example, "every production is a 'unique', costly, much-advertised affair" (1993: 6). Related to that is that "the genre only exists in the superlative mode" (1993: 6). One further characteristic were the "pressures towards conformity and ecumenical blandness" (1993: 8).

    They also note the contradictory attitudes of fascination and repulsion towards the (supposedly) heightened sexual content and the manner in which, typically, neither of which is ultimately fulfilled (1993: 11). This is similar to the more frequently discussed technique, popularised by DeMille, of dressing up the wolf of a greater amount of sexual content, in the sheep's clothing of a pious moral message and biblical content.

    Ultimately Babington and Evans list the following as the key characteristics of each of these sub-genres:

    The Old Testament Epic
    Culture heroes/villains, (50)
    Contemporary allusion, (53)
    American matters [i.e. parallels], (55)
    The battle of the gods , (57)
    Patterns of scepticism, (58)
    Spectacle (60)
    Law and Orgy (65)

    The Christ Film
    Miracles, (103)
    The Resurrection, (105
    The Jews, (105)
    The women, (107)

    The Roman/Christian Epic
    Shadow of the Galilean [i.e. Jesus Cameo only], (179)
    Prologues to what is possible, (181)
    Prologue into plot, (185)
    Christianity & Romantic love, (197)
    The Disappearing Jew, (199)
    Earthly powers, (202)

    There isn't really space here to go into the definitions of each of these, but it's worth pointing out how different these characteristics are of these more specific sub-genres.

    In his recent work "Hollywood Biblical Epics" (2015) Richard Lindsay is mainly concerned with the one obvious characteristic of biblical epics that no-one else seems to mention – camp.
    "...a good story, a romance of biblical proportions, push the boundaries of spectacle and special effects, let them see the events of biblical history played out omn the big screen as a grand pageant --furthermore, in the hypnotic-suggestive state of movie watching..." Lindsay (2015: xxi-xxii)
    Lindsay also cites the work of Douglas K. Mikkelson (2004) on the "silver screen gospels", most notably The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Mikkelson lists three criteria for such films:

    1 - "The film's main focus is to present a dramatized biography of Jesus in his historical time and place"
    2 - "The film is based on one or more of the New Testament Gospels"
    3 - The film must have been "released as a major motion picture or a major television movie"

    Surprisingly the only author I'm aware of who tries to systematically lay out the main criteria is Adele Reinhartz in her chapter "The Biblical Epic" in last year's "The Bible in Motion" (2016: 179-182). She lists the following four characteristics:

    1 - Scope and Scale,
    2 - Allusionism,
    3 - Romance, and
    4 - Markers of Biblical Authenticity

    She then takes a closer look at two further "features", "adapting the Bible to film" and “'then as now,' that is, the use of the past to reflect on the present" (2016: 184) where she examines the treatment of: gender, science and medicine, civil rights, cold war America, communism, atheism and idolatry, and epic religion.

    In a future post I'm going to propose my own criteria, based on the wealth of ideas above but also my own thoughts on the matter.

    ==============================
    - Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    - Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film:Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Mikkelson, Douglas K. (2004) "The Greatest Story Ever Told": A Silver-Screen Gospel". Lanham, MD ; Oxford: University Press of America
    - Reinhartz, Adele (2016), 'The Biblical Epic', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film, vol. 1, 175-92, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press

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    Wednesday, February 01, 2017

    Is There a 'Biblical Epic' Genre?


    This is the first in a series looking at the Biblical Epic genre
    I want to look at the question of if there is a 'Biblical Epic' genre? It's a question where it's tempting to jump to snap answers, but on closer inspection the issues blur a little. Certainly if the genre 'Biblical Epic' exists then the case is less clear cut than, say the 'Musical' genre, but that shouldn't necessarily mean that the answer to the question is a 'no'. After all, every genre is a little fuzzy around the edges. So I'm going to discuss some of the possible reasons why this might not be a legitimate genre and then mop up a few other points from there.

    Biblical epics are grouped together because of their common source, rather than on the basis of cinematic common ground
    I can certainly see the appeal of this point however I think three points should be made in response. Firstly, that whilst this objection might hold for all biblical films, the biblical epic is a smaller subset of that overall group. Godspell is clearly a biblical film, but many would argue that it is not a biblical epic. Secondly, whilst this genre is unique in this respect, many other genres share a common conglomeration of sources. Musicals are largely adaptions of Broadway shows. War films are usually based on the accounts of those who fought in these modern conflicts. Films Noir often come from 'pulp fiction' novels. Admittedly this is not quite the same, but neither is the point entirely irrelevant. Finally, whilst biblical epics do share the common ground of the biblical narratives, often what sprouts from it has been uprooted and replanted several times before it reaches us. Ben-Hur, to name but one example, is undoubtedly a biblical epic, but its links to the gospels are very slight indeed. Really it's an adaptation of nineteenth century historical fiction.

    Biblical epics are really just a sub-division of historical epics
    ...but then they are just a sub-division of all historical films (i.e. films not set in the present or future) and yet the differences between a 40s-era romance and a biblical epic are clearly considerable. It's true that these things can divide and divide - Babington and Evans, for example, divide the biblical epic into three further sub-groupings - however this is relatively consistent with genre theory which focuses on what different films hold in common and what audience expectations are. The audience for 300 would not have the same appetite for The Nativity Story (2006) as they would for Robin Hood (2010) for example. Their expectations from what each of those films would deliver is quite different.

    Overlap with other genres
    It can be argued that certain biblical epics also clearly meet the criteria for another genre. Jesus Christ, Superstar is a musical. Various adaptations of Noah qualify as disaster movies. The observation has been made several times that The Passion of the Christ is heavily reliant on the horror genre.

    However, this is not unique to the biblical epic genre. There are various westerns that are also musicals. The crossover between the woman's picture and film noir is frequently discussed, not to mention all those science fiction disaster movies. So this is just what we would expect, often resulting in some of the films around the fringes of one particular genre meeting the criteria for another.

    What arguments are there in favour of a biblical epic genre?
    The classic understanding of genre is that whilst the auteur theory centres around the filmmakers' perspective, genre theory is all to do with the audience. Genres function as a signpost for the potential audience to quickly understand the kind of film they are likely to see. A film of a particular genre will meet certain expectations. Some of these expectations might be subverted, but essentially the audience will broadly know what to expect. As James Monaco (2000: 300), looking back at the fifties and sixties when genres and biblical epics were both in their heyday, puts it:
    The elements were well known: there was a litany to each popular genre. Part of their pleasure lay in seeing how those basic elements would be treated this time around.1
    If this is, indeed, the key point then clearly biblical epics meet this criterion. Fans of biblical epics know the kind of thing they are going to get. Indeed, if anything it was the genre's failure to adapt and subvert itself that lead to the 'death' of the genre in the late sixties.

    The other classic definition of genre is that it is essentially a gathering together of a group of films with common characteristics. This essentially cuts both ways. On the one hand if this was the sole criterion then a certain group of films could indeed be grouped together and called a biblical epic, or whatever someone wanted. However this can also be seen as a weakness as it does rather undermine the whole premise. If there is little more to genre than a subjective grouping of films based on perceived similarities, then what exactly is the point? Suffice to say, that this is where the second element comes in, that of audience expectations and marketeers' shorthand. Indeed some argue that the point of genres is their predictability. "(T)here are a limited and predictable range of features; where characters and events are more predictable and where our expectations are more likely to be fulfilled" (Phillips 1999: 166).

    In a future post I'm going to look at what some of those characteristics might be for the biblical epic genre and later still I hope to look at a few more modern biblical epics to see if the genre characteristics of the traditional epics still hold in the twenty-first century.

    =============
    - Monaco, James ([1981] 2000), How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia, Third Edition, New York: Oxford University Press
    - Phillips, Patrick ([1996] 1999), 'Genre, Star and Auteur - Critical Approaches to Hollywood Cinema' in Jill Nelmes (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies, Second Edition, 161-208, New York: Routledge

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    Thursday, January 26, 2017

    La Vie de Jesus (1997)


    The title of Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jesus (The Life of Jesus, 1997) may catch the eye of those like me, but its biblical themes are far more subtle than the title would immediately suggest.

    La Vie de Jesus is about Freddy, a rebellious teenager from a deprived area of rural France. He hangs out with his mates, has sex with his girlfriend (Marie), moans at his mum and plays the drums for his marching band. He also has a form of epilepsy which limits his employment possibilities and leaves him reliant on his mates to go out.

    Whilst the film caused a degree of controversy when it was first released for his close-ups of penetrative sex, it's actually the racism of Freddy and his mates that proves the most uncomfortable. Yet when the group of them racially abuse, what they assume is, an Arab family, the son (Kader) decides to try and woo Marie - an act that eventually leads to him being beaten by Freddy and his mates and left by the side of the road.

    There are three Jesus-related images in the film which gran the attention and remind us of its enigmatic title. The first is as the brother of one of Freddy's friends lies dying in the hospital. Another friend spots a painting of the resurrection of Lazarus and tries to draw Freddy's attention to it. "Have you seen the picture" the friend asks "its the story of a guy who came back to life". "Shut up" Freddy replies. There's seemingly no place amongst this group of friends for Jesus the bringer of life.

    Yet a little unexpectedly it's a shot of the beaten and bloody Kader that provides the film's next Jesus-esque image and we're reminded that Jesus was not the one that we/they expect(d). He was a despised outsider. That said, shortly afterwards there's a shot of Freddy (above) that also seems to chime with traditional images of Jesus.

    A friend of mine, Mike Leary, has written a short piece on this film and its use of the name Jesus in the book "Light Shining in a Dark Place" and the relevant section can currently be read on Google books.

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    Saturday, January 21, 2017

    Le Fils de Joseph (2016)
    (The Son of Joseph)


    This essay isn't so much of a review as a look at some of the film's main themes. As such it will contain spoilers though there are not any particularly shocking twists that would be spoilt by what I discuss below. It's also very much a work-in-progress,so please don't judge it too harshly...

    Eugéne Green's Le Fils de Joseph is a Bible film but, crucially, neither a biblical epic nor a typical modernisation of the Nativity accounts. Instead of taking those two more well-trodden routes it opts for a different approach that is quite distinct from any other biblical adaptation I can recall. Instead Green's film explores the story via a modernised story of Vincent a teenage boy who begins the process of discovering who is father is. Whilst for a moment Green toys with his audience to suggest that there might be some kind of supernatural element to his birth, it quickly becomes apparent that, far from being divine, his father is not even a particularly good human.

    At the same time Le Fils de Joseph is far more than just an off-beat modern-day story with familiarly named characters. Instead it examines issues of fatherhood, divinity and parentlessness on a number of different levels, enhanced by a technical formalism which underpins these different elements.

    Firstly there is the way the film is divided into five acts, each of which is named according to a different biblical story as follows:

    I - The Sacrifice of Abraham
    II - The Golden Calf
    III - The Sacrifice of Isaac
    IV - The Carpenter
    V - The Flight into Egypt

    This is a relatively unusual formal element, made all the more notable by the fact that two of these intertitles are named after the story of Abraham and Isaac, and one after the Israelite's exodus from Egypt, rather than Mary and Joseph. They're also one of a number of ways in which the film references the work of Jean Luc Godard, whose own modernisation of the Nativity, Je vous Salue (Hail Mary, 1985) was a more straightforward, and perhaps less successful, adaptation of the narratives about Jesus' birth.

    Other formal elements of the piece however would appear to owe more to the work of other French filmmakers, most notably the work of Robert Bresson, whom Green acknowledges as a major influence.1 The second aspect, and perhaps the one that has been most remarked on by reviewers, is the manner in which the characters frequently speak or stare directly into the camera.

    Whilst not a few films allow their leading characters to speak into the camera, it is relatively rare that the majority of the lead characters do so. Interestingly, this is done in such a way that leaves the question open to interpretation as to whether the characters/actors are meant to be aware of the camera. There are no Alvy Singer / Frank Underwood moments when characters knowingly address the camera, but at certain times, certain characters seem to sense it without specifically interacting with it. This technique itself brings a level of meaning; the viewer observes from a position with some echoes of divinity - on the one hand present yet unable to intervene or interact with the characters. Likewise the characters sense our presence but do not interact with us.

    Thirdly, the actors often hold their poses in a certain way and underplay their acting style. Rather than pacing around set and twisting and turning to indicate their passion or emotions, generally they more or less remain standing on the same spot throughout a scene. They tone down the use of their limbs and keep their facial expressions relatively non-demonstrative. As in Bresson's work is a refusal to tell the viewer what to think, leave it instead to the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the character's thoughts and emotions. As Green has explained it's also about enabling the viewer "to see more deeply into the reality of the present....you have to take your time...I want to take the time to go into what is hidden behind the appearance of reality."2

    Finally, by keeping the actors' relatively stationary, Green is able to repeat the same sequence of shot types numerous times throughout the film, most notably for dialogue where he typically starts with a mid-length two shot of the characters, before alternating over-the shoulder shots which gradually edge forward until they become close-ups. Often the sequence will end up on a mid-shot again, without the characters appearing to have moved. Alternatively the sequence ends on a close up that is held for several seconds with the character starring into the camera.

    These techniques are consistent throughout the film and, as we have seen, provide one of the levels with which the film addresses its themes. The other levels, however, appear less consistently and in many places intersect with one another.

    The most obvious of these is the plot. Vincent has been brought up by his mother, Marie, in the knowledge that he doesn't have a father. One day however he opens Marie's desk and find a letter she sent to his father that was returned. When Marie refuses to give him any more details he tracks down his father, Oscar Pormenor, who is now a successful publisher. Later Vincent sneaks into Oscar's office, witnesses first-hand his father's philandering and disregard for his other children, and proceeds to attack him. But in fleeing the scene he has a chance encounter with Oscar's brother Joseph. The two become friends and together with Marie they flee to the country. Given this is a film about Mary and Joseph made by a Bresson fan it's perhaps no surprise that the final, and most iconic, scene features a journey with a seemingly watchful donkey.

    Attached to this basic structure are a number of individual conversations, particularly in Act i, which revolve around different facets of absent parents, in quite oblique ways - one of Vincent's friends is selling his sperm on the internet; his mother, who is a nurse, has to care for a young girl whose father has just been killed in a car accident; Vincent's father has obvious pride in his literary son, writer Mathieu Orfraie; Oscar and Joseph's conversation about their own judgemental father; Vincent and Joseph have various conversations about the biblical characters Joseph ("Through his son he became a father") and Abraham ("God didn't ask him to [sacrifice his son]. The voice he heard was his own."); and the pair watch the performance of a 17th century song written after the death of the author's son.

    Then there are all the small almost incidental references the film makes. Most obviously in this respect is the naming of Vincent's mother as Marie and of his "adopted" father Joseph. But many more exist far more fleetingly. Early on a shop banner reveals its name to be Pere & Fils, Orfraie's book is called "The Predatory Mother". Then there's the way that when Vincent first spots Pormenor he is wearing a red scarf and later on in the film Vincent mirrors that by wearing one himself. In a later scene Green captures a two shot of Vincent and Joseph both with the sweater tied around their neck in identical ways (above) - they are a mirror image, but together and now united on the same size.

    Surprisingly, the biggest "reference" makes in the film has nothing to do with Mary and Joseph. Caravaggio's painting "The Sacrifice of Isaac" (1603) plays a pivotal role in the film. A large copy of it is displayed on Vincent's wall and early in the film it features prominently in a discussion between Vincent and Marie, often with the shot arranged to make it, rather than Mary, the focus of attention. Green allows his audience plenty of time to take the painting in, as he wants them "to be able to have the same experience as they [the characters looking at the paintings] do".3

    When the scene ends Vincent takes a long stare at this image, which we are given as a point-of-view shot, and at the end of the act we see a shot which superimposes Vincent putting handcuffs around his wrists in the foreground with the Caravaggio in the background. Clearly the image forms part of his motivation in the following scene for his attack on his biological father. Pormenor, like Isaac, is bound (by those same handcuffs), gagged (using the aforementioned red scarf) and laid horizontal awaiting an attack that never comes. Vincent brandishes his knife and seemingly has every intention of going through with it (below). The only difference, aside from the role reversal, is that the angel that prevents Abraham from striking in Caravaggio's work is not depicted in Green's. Similarly, the second act - named "The Golden Calf" because it has become clear that Oscar cares far more for his literary prodigies than he does for his biological children - ends with another point-of-view shot of the painting. This time the camera moves slowly leading the eye towards Isaac's distorted face before panning back towards the angel and then back again to ending on a close up of the knife. The camera works in a similar fashion when the scene is re-enacted by Vincent, only rather than taking it in one continuous shot, Green uses cuts, making the experience more abrupt and shocking and replaces the angel with a shot of the closed door.

    Of course, whilst the title and subject matter of the film may prime the audience to expect Vincent to be a Christ figure, this scene confirms that this is not Green's intention here. Not only is this not how a Christ figure is expected to behave, but the film makes no explicit attempt to link Vincent to Jesus aside from the names of his mother and his adopted father. Whilst early in the film Marie says to Vincent "You have no father." it soon becomes clear that this is not meant in a literal sense. Furthermore there are no Christ figure poses, halos, sacrificial acts, pseudo miracles or people revering Vincent in some way, indeed quite the reverse. In the film's opening scene, Vincent leaves two of his friends as they torture a rat. One asks where Vincent has gone. "He's weird." replies the other. In the next Vincent takes a long walk straight towards the camera in a shot laced with an ominously meaningful-looking aura. But just as he opens his mouth, as if to make some profound utterance, a passing cyclist accidentally clips Vincent's rucksack and the profound moment is gone. This is not what audiences of biblical films have come to expect.

    If Vincent is not to be associated with Jesus, then it's tempting to align him with Isaac. Jesus, of course, had no earthly father; Isaac may have wished he also had not. Both were children who were subject to their father's desire for sacrifice. The use of Caravaggio's painting and the titles of acts i and iii ("The Sacrifice of Abraham" / "The Sacrifice of Isaac") may suggest that this is a more of a role reversal however with Vincent, the abandoned son, taking revenge on his errant father.

    These themes sit neatly alongside the two other paintings that feature prominently in the film. Indeed for Ben Kenigsberg of the New York Times, Green's films "draw as much on architecture, paintings, music and theater as on cinema".4 In the fourth act Joseph takes Vincent to the Louvre where the pair are shown looking at Georges de La Tour's "St. Joseph the Carpenter" and Philippe de Champaigne's "The Dead Christ on his Shroud". The first portrays Joseph (who bears a striking resemblance to the Abraham of the Caravaggio painting) with a young Jesus in his carpentry shop. As the filmic Joseph explains to Vincent the drill is in "the shape of a cross, to remind us how Jesus will die". The second shows us the aftermath of the crucifixion with the dead Jesus stretched out, his sacrifice complete. In the latter image Jesus' hand rests on his loincloth as if to draw attention to his 'humanity'.

    Throughout his career Green has been heavily influenced by the Baroque period and the idea of the hidden God who only appears "in certain moments when the natural moments of nature were suspended".5 Much of his interest, which goes back over to 40 years ago when he founded le Théâtre de la Sapience partly to perform Baroque productions, lies in the manner in which Baroque thought "gives a possibility to live in the modern world with a spiritual life".6 In addition to the three paintings that are so prominently featured, then, there is also a pivotal scene where Joseph takes Vincent to see a piece of Baroque theatre. After the trip to the Louvre the pair enter a church where a classical singer accompanied by a lute perform a version of The Lament of Euryalus's mother from Virgil's Aenid.7. This time it's an expression of another parent-child relationship a mother expressing the loss of her son. It's significant, then, that in the next scene Vincent is seen at home in his mother's company for the first time since Act 2. Having returned home Vincent decides to introduce her to his adopted father.

    Yet despite the depth of issues the film explores it remains surprisingly comic in tone, just one of the many departures from traditional biblical epics. Variety described it as a "mirthful contemporary remix of the Nativity story",8 the New York Times noted its "throwaway humor"9 and the Phoenix Cinema summed it up nicely as "A delightful and enjoyably off-beat comedy of misplaced paternity".10

    Indeed whilst the films humour comes and goes, it's usually used to make a point. At the beginning of the film Green shows us a shot of the high street where two people focusing on their phones unexpectedly crash into one another. Green has spoken about his concerns that "we live in a world in which the present doesn't exist. If you go out on the street you see people with their mobile phones...they have no contact with their present. But the present is the most important time".11

    The funniest scenes revolve around the literary world which Green, as an author of books has experienced first hand. In particular the scenes at the launch party for Mathieu Orfraie's book which satirises literary reviewers in much the same way Denys Arcand mocked film and television critics in Jesus d'Montreal. Vincent, for example, meets one self-aggrandising critic who, assuming he must be an author, proceeds to tell him how Oscar has told her he is "brilliant". It's not only a swipe at literary criticism, but it also reminds us ironically that Oscar has not even acknowledged his son Vincent, let alone made plans to publish his novel.

    Oscar is a comic-tragic figure. Despite having no interest in his children and cheating on his wife, Oscar believes himself to be "a man of principle", merely bored by the "details" of how many children he has. His chief principle however seems to be refusing to help his, once-errant, brother. It's a judgement that prompts Joseph's to reply "I hope you reap the fruits of your virtue", (a prophecy is fulfilled just moments later when Vincent knocks him to the ground and puts a knife to his throat). "Pormenor" is an ironically chosen name which translates as "details", which Green has explained is because whilst "he thinks that everything that's important is a detail" ultimately it is he who "turns out to be a detail".12 Significantly, we are told that Joseph did not take this surname, and that neither did Marie give it to Vincent.

    Since Oscar is Vincent's true father who leaves a man called Joseph to do his fathering for him, it raises the question of whether Oscar is meant to represent God. Certainly the distant father who having brought his child(ren) into existence then has nothing to do with him (them) close to the deist idea of a non-intervening god which is so critical to deist thought. However, whilst he may be the biological father of Mary's 'fatherless' child, that child, as we have seen above, is neither a modernised Jesus or Christ figure. Green's films are marked by this love of paradox and ambiguity. As Green himself has said, “Cinema is the place where the materiality of the world and the sacred, the visible and the invisible meet”.13 It's a quote that goes back to at least 2014's La Sapienza but it deftly captures the paradoxes and contradictions that lie at the heart of Le Fils de Joseph. It's a film where the world that is portrayed is not quite the world we live in. Instead its a world that tells us far more about our own world and makes us yearn to meet the hidden God even if only at the end of our journey.

    =============
    1 - http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/
    interviews/great-beauty-eugene-green-la-sapienza

    2 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    3 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    4 - https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/movies/the-son-of-joseph-review.html?nlid=73642489&_r=1
    5 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    6 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    7 - Vergil, Aeneid 9.460-524
    8 - http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/le-fils-de-joseph-review-1201705952/
    9 - https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/movies/the-son-of-joseph-review.html?nlid=73642489&_r=1
    10 - "The Son of Joseph". Online synopsis from Phoenix Cinema http://www.phoenix.org.uk/film/the-son-of-joseph/ - accessed 12 Jan 2017
    11 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    12 - http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature/2016-10-13-eugene-green-in-conversation-on-son-of-joseph-le-fils-de-joseph-feature-story-by-anne-katrin-titze
    13 - http://isalyinnroadtripblues.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/blog-post_27.html

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    Thursday, January 19, 2017

    A Few Moments of Silence


    Martin Scorsese's Silence is a film of contradictions. Narratively simple, but thematically complex. Hauntingly beautiful, yet unbearable ugly in so much of what it portrays. Its a film that bears so many of the hallmarks of Scorsese's style yet feels completely different to anything he has produced before.

    So much of the film is encapsulated in the opening scene of Jesuit priests and Japanese inquisitors amongst the hills supposedly just outside Nagasaki, where geothermal pools of boiling water create an eerie beauty. Yet as the scene unfolds the beauty changes to horror as the boiling water from the pools is dripped onto the Jesuits' backs as a form of torture. It's 17th century Japan and the shogunate inquisitors are attempting to stamp out Christianity in their country.

    The film bears many of Scorsese's little touches, the violence, the close male friendships, the mentor and the charismatic character with the extreme personality. In some ways Silence is the polar opposite of Scorsese's last outing - the greed, sex and drug duelled lifestyle of The Wolf of Wall Street, but in other ways the two leads have much in common. Both men rush headlong in pursuit of their goals, driven by an undiluted vision. Father Rodrigues' determination to track down his predecessor in Japan may be far more laudable and morally pure than that of "The Wolf", but it also undoubtedly causes the most suffering - even if it is not he who is ultimately responsible for it.

    Another one of Scorsese's repeated themes is the apparent silence of a hidden god. Here the theme is far more front and centre than one might expect. Rodrigues struggles with his faith and the question of whether he should respond to the crisis practically and recant to save lives and suffering, or should he remain faithful to his religion. The films refuses to provide any easy answers. Even Liam Neeson's pivotal speech is not entirely convincing. Is it about remaining resolute, or learning to compromise and respect others' beliefs? Morality or confession? Or is it about providing context to the cries of "persecution from the religious right. Thankfully it manages to steer clear of the white saviour complex... just about.

    There's probably much more that could be said but, for now the above will have suffice.

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    Monday, December 19, 2016

    The Book of Judith (2015)

    I've written several times about films based on the Book of Judith and director Alex Méndez Giner has been kind enough to share with me his 2015 short The Book of Judith (view trailer).

    The film is not an attempt to directly adapt the Book of Judith, nor to create a modernised version of the story or even to depict a 'Judith figure'. Instead it draws on numerous and historical artistic portrayals of Judith's deeds as the texture of a film about the internal thoughts and anxieties of a widowed farmer, in order to penetrate "the complex psychology of Judith’s character and shed light on her personality".1

    The nameless woman, who the film's official description confirms is called Judith, lives on an isolated sheep farm with what we presume are her daughter and mother. Their remote lives are interrupted one day when a rather forthright stranger seeks shelter: it's winter and his car has apparently broken down en route to his mother's funeral. The stranger is not sinister, but the presumptive way in which he appears to invite himself into Judith's house and then decide he is staying for the night leaves her feeling threatened and perhaps a little violated.

    I say "appear", because from very early on in the film the line between reality and fantasy quickly becomes blurred. We witness only snippets of Judith and her guest's initial discussions to the point that it's unclear how he ended up inside her house to begin with let alone being her guest for the evening.

    Méndez Giner's evocative imagery, however, says it all. Images of wolves, sheep with their throats cut, softly lit funeral processions and Judith deep underwater engulf the viewer in images of the threat of an invasive outside force. The precise nature of the threat brought by the stranger is never made explicit, but left for the viewer to infer from the range of Judith's inner thoughts with which we are presented. Unsurprisingly, given the film's title, things culminate with a series of sexually charged images.

    The director's own description of the film refers to over 110 portrayals and the influence of some of the most famous such works, especially the Baroque-era painters Gentileschi, Bigot and Caravaggio are particularly apparent. Notable too are references to other works such as Caravaggio's "Sacrifice of Isaac" and Bill Viola's "Five Angels for the Millennium".

    The result is a beautiful and interesting film which by associating itself with the text only loosely, through symbols rather than plot, allows its audience to explore some of the emotions that Judaism's greatest heroine may have experienced when the might of Holofernes army threatened her and her town. And it demonstrates to us today that, even if the stakes are rarely, if ever, as high for us as they were for her, we can still find a path to less troubled times.

    ======
    Image credit - Alex Mendez Giner.
    1 - From Méndez Giner's description of the film which accompanies the trailer - https://vimeo.com/167677004

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    Sunday, December 11, 2016

    Heremias
    (Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat Ng Prinsesang Bayawak)

    Heremias isn't really Bible film. In fact it's not really even a Jeremiah figure film. Nevertheless the unusual choice of name for Lav Diaz's film and its title character invites comparison with the biblical prophet and the book that bears his name, and there are a number of similarities that bear repeating. The book itself is the longest in the bible (by number of words in the original language) and Diaz's film is a sprawling eight and a half hours similarly dense, impenetrable and unwilling to compromise the quality of its vision just for the sake of brevity.

    Heremias is an unassuming, and somewhat solitarian peddler, who travels huge distances on foot with his cow pulling a cart full of goods. He's seemingly the kind of person who's gloomy outlook on life is rarely disappointed. When he splits off from a group of his fellow peddlers, opting for a lone path rather than continue with the group, his soon-to-be-former colleagues warn him of the risks of isolation and attack. Unfortunately it's them rather than him that possess the prophetic insight and when Heremias next finds himself in company he discovers too late that he had entrusted he and his livelihood to thieves and vandals.

    By normal standards these revelations would be classed as the fundamentals of the plot, but it's not until way after three hours that this incident occurs; rather than building up the plot the film's opening period spends us time methodically giving us that sense of isolation and the pace of life in Heremias's world. Diaz chooses ultra-long, often entirely static, takes where often little happens aside from the character and his cart slowly traversing from one side of the screen to the other at what feels like glacial pace. Its austere, real world aesthetics, though, do not necessarily convey impassivity or detachment, indeed shots later on in the film are shown from Heremias' point of view as, taking the law into his own hands, he attempts to track down those who wronged him.

    In what way, then, does Diaz's lead relate to the biblical character? Certainly it's tempting to try and draw allegories from some of the events that are shown. Perhaps the ineffective priest represents the compromised priesthood of Mattaniah's Jerusalem, or the corrupt police symbolic of Jerusalem's morally corroded establishment, but this seems like a stretch to far. Indeed in an interview before filming was complete Diaz stated that:
    "There's no correlation between the historical Jeremias, or even the biblical Jeremia (Jeremiah)...I like the name; that organic feel and process again - you look and search for a name that would appropriate a character you are creating...a lot of people would easily correlate it with a character from the Bible especially in a very Catholic Philippines. But honestly, I never read the Bible."
    That said, given that these comments were made well before the film was completed and, of course, the Bible's deep cultural impact, a certain amount of comparison between the biblical and filmic leads seems acceptable*. After all, like his biblical predecessor Heremias is one who looks closely at the state of his world, shrewdly observing it's short-comings and moral failings. In one, hour-long shot - one that manages to be tense but perhaps a little indulgent - Heremias witnesses four teenage boys drinking, taking drugs, spraying graffiti and generally smashing up the ruined dwelling where he had previously been robbed. On this occasion, as with many others during the film, Heremias's response, at least initially, is one of despair and a feeling of powerlessness, though neither he nor his Old Testament counterpart is easily dissuaded from trying to do the right thing. Heremias cuts a downcast figure and certainly he suffers in a fashion that seemingly questions the inherent morality and fairness of the universe.

    There's an interesting piece on Lav Diaz and this film at The Seventh Art as well of discussion about one of it's best shots here though neither of them really describes the meaning of the film's subtitle: The Legend of The Lizard Princess. This is neither one of those nuclear paranoia era sci-fi films, nor anything to do with Adventuretime, but a reference to one of the Filipino towns that Heremiasreaches. The town has a folk tale about a daughter who was abducted by some hunters because of her beauty who later seemed to return as a protective lizard. It's an odd sub-heading as it feels out of place with the slow, meditative pace of the film, but, as becomes apparent later, it also seems to play a role in some of the film's final scenes as Diaz bring his exploration of morality and our response to it to a fitting climax.

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    *Furthermore other reviewers, without the kind of motivation I have to emphasise the links, do so anyway such as this from art-film streaming service Mubi and this from the Dutch film festival IFFR.


    Saturday, November 05, 2016

    The Canon Post-The Passion


    I started writing an introduction for piece about how Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a real game changer for the genre but then that spun off in all kinds of interesting ways that I hadn't anticipated and, given the deadline I'm trying to work to, I though I better press on with the main subject at hand. I'll return to it later.

    Needless to say, the film's success paved the way for numerous new projects to get the go-ahead; studios became interested in making Bible films. Church groups were inspired to think they might be able to make their dream projects viable. Whilst the rate of films being made was not quite that of the turn of the millennium, at present it's been the second most fruitful period in film history.

    It's hardly surprising that no stories were adapted for the first time, but again there seemed to be a trend towards stories treasured by the church improving their overall representation. In terms of the Hebrew Bible this was very much swelled by the History Channel's series The Bible which covered episodes across both testaments. Many of these treatments were quite short - indeed the entire Hebrew Bible was crammed into just five episodes of around forty minutes each, but characters such as Jeremiah, Daniel, Jonah, Elijah, Gideon and Joshua all received rare appearances. The perceived wisdom that Christian audiences only wanted Bible films for all the family - an argument which had been annihilated by the success of The Passion - was turned on its head in this series which far from minimising the violence in the Bible, upped the ante and selected stories where violence was a key element, at times even going beyond the text to introduce more violence into the production.

    If the violent elements in the Bible were, at last, being recognised the same could not be said about sexual content. Early in the development of the genre filmmakers such as DeMille had recognised sexual content inherent in the text and been happy to exploit it to their own ends. At first the introduction of the Production Code stymied this and then for a while sexual content followed by a moral lesson warning of its perils created a conduit under which sex in Bible movies thrived. But as the Code's power began to wane other genres filled the niche leaving biblical epics without their monopoly and, barring the odd exception, they retreated to comparatively low levels of sexual content.

    This trend is particularly apparent in the 2008 adaptation of the Book of Hosea Oversold. It's not hard to imagine the lurid spectacle someone like DeMille would have made of the story of Hosea who married a prostitute under God's instruction. The film relocates the story in modern day America and the woman in question is a stripper rather than a prostitute, but even with this modification this church-sponsored production leaves sexual content the minimum. Nevertheless the adaptation of this story - only the second time Hosea had ever been featured on film - reinforces the wider trend. Content that is cherished within the church is filtering through to the selection of stories which are adapted into biblical films.

    The success of The Passion of the Christ also led to the re-emergence the passion play film. This was a popular feature of the earliest silent movies - with only a limited runtime available it's hardly surprising that this was the aspect of Jesus' life that was most commonly featured - and of course there have been instances of it in the interim, such as Jesus Christ, Superstar. However a tradition that was almost lost in some sectors of the church was jump-started by Gibson's film and in it's wake numerous filmed passion plays emerged such as Color of the Cross (dir. Jean-Claude La Marre, 2006), The Manchester Passion (dir. Phil Chilvers 2006), The Passion (dir. Michael Offer, 2008), Su Re (dir. Giovanni Columbu, 2012) and Killing Jesus (dir. Christopher Menaul, 2015). These adaptations of the Bible curtail the canon of gospel stories getting filmed in favour of one (admittedly highly significant) part of his life.

    Aside from the re-emergence of passion plays, Gibson's film also led to other Jesus biopics finding their way into cinemas. Both Son of God (dir. Christopher Spencer, 2014) and The Nativity Story (Dir.Catherine Hardwicke, 2006) appeared in multiplexes; films where Jesus made an (in some cases extended) cameo appearance such as this year's Risen and Ben Hur have also enjoyed wide releases; and various other films such as Last Days in the Desert (2016) and Mary (dir. Abel Ferrara, 2005) have appeared in art-house cinemas.

    Some of the titles in that list also highlight another trend which has become more apparent in recent years - the use of apocryphal/ non-canonical works as a key source. Adaptations of contemporary novelisations based on a combination of a gospel harmonisation and the author's imagination go right back to the silent era. What was emerging was the adaptation of ancient sources, which claimed to be historic, and even eye-witness accounts, but which have never been considered part of the official canon.

    Abel Ferrara's Mary featured scenes taken from the Gospel of Mary. Whilst this year's Young Messiah was an adaptation of a modern novel, it contained several episodes drawn from both the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James.1 Mesih/Jesus the Spirit of God (dir. Nader Talebzader, 2007) drew on the Gospel of Barnabas as well as the Koran to the extent that Jesus does not die but is taken up to heaven just before his crucifixion and replaced by a physically transformed Judas. Indeed, several productions have, to varying degrees, based their stories of biblical characters on the accounts in the Koran, including Saint Mary (dir. Shahriar Bahrani, 1997), the 35-hour long TV series Prophet Joseph (dir. Farajollah Salahshoor, 2008) as well as Salahshoor's Ayyub e Payambar (1993) about Job and Ebrahim Payambar / Ibraheem, the Friend of God (dir. Mohammad-Reza Varzi, 2008). Sometimes these have used the Koran to augment the biblical accounts; at other times to replace it.

    Finally what's interesting about the adaptation of the Hebrew Bible is how the same stories that have been popular in previous decades have been selected again in the last few years since Gibson's film, but have been presented in a more creative, less conventional and more subversive forms. As I mentioned in a previous post in this series the same six stories have frequently been the subject of larger productions particularly in those periods in which Bible films have been popular at the box office, the six being Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, Exodus, Samson and Delilah, David and, of course, Jesus. The mainstream Jesus films I have mentioned, briefly, above. From the Old Testament stories the two examples that spring immediately to mind from this contemporary era are, of course, Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014) and Ridley Scott's Exodus: God's and Kings from the same year. Sodom and Gomorrah formed the main part of the comedy Year One (dir. Harold Ramis, 2009) as well as touching on other episodes. Whilst, at the time of writing, nothing has been released, Ridley Scott is apparently directing a film about David and two of the main three US networks have adapted the story for television - the modernisation Kings (2009) and the rapidly jettisoned Of Kings and Prophets (2016).2. That only leaves Samson and Delilah, which despite a number of smaller adaptations is yet to get the blockbuster treatment. With the superhero genre dominant at the moment, surely it's only a matter of time.

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    1 - For a detailed analysis of the scenes in this film, and their sources, see Peter Chattaway's - "The Young Messiah: a scene guide"
    2 - "Fox, Scott Free and Chernin Reteam on Biblical King David Film", Justin Kroll for Variety, July 8, 2014.

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    Monday, October 24, 2016

    The Canon Around the Millennium

    The impending arrival of the new millennium was accompanied by an unprecedented volume of productions in a surprisingly short amount of time. The Golden Era of biblical epics had produced over 90 Old Testament films in just a seventeen year period; the experimental era a similar number in 22 years. But between the start of 1990 and the start of 2004 there were around 120 different productions to gain some kind of significant release based on the Hebrew Bible alone, not to mention the 25 or so films to feature Jesus in some form and a handful of productions based on Acts.

    The numbers of films getting a mainstream cinema release was fairly low. The Prince of Egypt (1998) enjoyed box office success, but no other film enjoyed such a wide release. That said there were many more independent films produced for the cinema. In addition to The Prince of Egypt the three years from 1998 to 2000 also saw the release of Hal Hartley's millennium reflection Book of Life (1998); Superstar (dir. Bruce McCulloch, 1999), featuring comic cameos from Will Ferrell as Jesus; Mary, Mother of Jesus (dir. Kevin Connor, 1999) starring a young Christian Bale as Jesus; and the Welsh-Russian animated collaboration The Miracle Maker (2000) directed by Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov.

    Whilst the ever increasing costs of producing successful mainstream movies, for a audience that was perceived - perhaps incorrectly - to be shrinking, meant that big cinematic releases were few and far between, the genre was thriving in other areas. Production arrangements were changing radically, most significantly in the area of collaboration. Television companies from different countries would come together and pool their budgets to produce films that could be broadcast on their different networks at home, often with some dubbed dialogue. Following release they could also be sold on DVD. This was the model used by Luxe Vide for their expansive Bible Collection series which ran to seventeen episodes.

    Another new area of development were films made more for Christian audiences might be broadcast on Christian television networks as well as enjoying a DVD release. Indeed the preponderance of animated series aimed more at children in this era (including The Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible (fourteen biblical entries), Animated Stories from the Bible (thirty-six entries) and Veggie Tales, whose more fluid adaptations make them harder to quantify.

    A few years into this period cinema celebrated its hundredth birthday and the centenary of the first Bible film followed a few years later, so by this point, few of the main stories from the Bible had not been covered at least once. However many of those that had only been sparsely covered in the past - not least when compared to their prior significance in the Bible, interpretative teaching from the Bible and church art - began to gain greater coverage. Just as the filmic canon was beginning to be established, it began to be challenged.

    The most significant challenge to the established order was The Bible Collection's 1998 adaptation Jeremiah (dir. Harry Winer). Whilst a few films had touched on the fall of Jerusalem only the 1922 German film Der Kampf um Jerusalem1 had previously given any real significance to the prophet associated with the Bible's longest book.2 Along similar lines the "Animated Stories from the Bible" series produced cartoon versions of Daniel (dir. Richard Rich, 1993) and Elisha: Man of God (dir. Richard Rich, 1994). Daniel was also included as an episode in the Testament: The Bible in Animation series of short films aimed at a more grown-up section of the market. It is undoubtedly significant that all of these projects had strong links with the church and perhaps saw part of their mandate more as popularising the stories of the Bible than continuing cinematic tradition.

    However, there were also filmmakers from outside of Christianity seeking to re-engage with the stories that filmmakers had appeared to forget such as Israeli director Einat Kapach's film Bat Yiftach (Jephtah's Daughter, 1996). One other interesting development in this period was the release of the Liken Bible Series which contained both episodes based on biblical stories and other based on the Book of Mormon such as Nephi & Laban (dirs. Dennis Agle Jr., Aaron Edson, 2003) and Ammon and Lamoni (dirs. Dennis Agle Jr., Aaron Edson, 2004).

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    1 - For an interesting paper about the history about this once unknown, then found "orphan" film read Jan Christopher Horak's paper, "The Strange Case of The Fall of Jerusalem : Orphans and Film Identification"
    2 - Based on number of words in the original language.

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