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  • 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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    Tuesday, February 28, 2006

    The Early Jesus Film Synoptic Problem

    I won a DVD of "Early Religious Films" on eBay, and they arrived yesterday (in less than a week - from Canada). The information on the auction page claimed that it contained 3 films from the 1890s and 1900s, Life of Christ, Death of Christ, and David and Saul. Information about this period in cinema history is fairly unreliable so I was fairly sceptical as to what it might produce.

    Having watched both of the Jesus films I'm still not sure what to make of them. I'm going to discuss each film individually as we go through the week. The hardest task before me however is trying to work out the date of these films.

    Before the internet, there were two major sources of reference information on Films about Jesus, "Divine Images" by Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis, and "The Bible on Film: A Checklist 1897-1980" by Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts. However, neither of these films mention a Jesus film, made by Pathé before The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, listed as 1905. The opening shot of this film is shown below:


    It seems unlikely that this might have been faked, particularly as it appears that all three films appear on a video entitled "A History of Color in Silent Films" which covers Pathé films from 1898 onwards, and The Life of Christ is the first.

    A third piece of the puzzle is the relationship between this film and The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. This film was given a wide release on DVD a few years ago, and the packaging claimed parts of it were released in 1902 with extra scenes and colouring being added with subsequent re-releases in he years up to 1905. This contradicts the testimonies of both both "The Bible on Film", and "Divine Images". Both of which list Pathé's first film of this title being released in 1905 and another longer film of the same title being released in 1908, with a colourised version being produced in 1914, when reviewers, who were seemingly unaware of its antiquity, slated it for poor production.

    The relevance of this becomes apparent from the first scene of The Life of Christ which is identical to a scene in The Life and Passion, in fact, as the film continues, it appears that most of The Life of Christ was reproduced in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Something of a Jesus film synoptic problem. That said there are some scenes which are different - either the same scene shot very differently, or similarly but in a different location, or with different actors, whereas some are entirely absent in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Other scenes are less extravagantly coloured than the ones from that film. Significantly all of the scenes that look like they have been re-shot are significantly better in The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ.

    On the other hand, most of the material from The Death of Christ is original, although even it utilises some of the same material that is later incorporated into The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Here though the quality of the film (from an aesthetic point of view) is lower, suggesting that this is the oldest of the three films. In several places where one of the later films improves upon one of the earlier two films, one of its "improvements" is to add special effects. For example the resurrection scene in "The Death of Christ", is less technical, but also far less gaudy than the way Jesus hovers out of the tomb in both of the later films.

    So the three films are clearly related, and it would be logical to suggest that The Death of Christ, is the eldest film (particularly given that most of the very first Jesus films were passion plays). However, things are not quite that simple. Firstly, it appears that a number of different actors are used in The Life of Christ. This and the fact that the style of the intertitles changes from those identical to The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, to others that look older, and less sophisticated, suggests that this film (and possibly The Death of Christ) are composites.

    NT scholars will be relieved to hear that my hypothesis isn't that there was a fourth hypothetical Jesus film now lost which the two later films copied parts of and incorporated! My best guess is that the earliest parts of these films do date from 1898, but that the longer Life of Christ film didn't reach this hotch-potched form until 1902. It subsequently was expanded to 2 reels and tidied up a bit in 1905 and released as The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, and similarly was expanded again to 3 reels in 1908 and re-released under the same title. This means that Campbell, Pitts, Kinnard and Davis come away with some credit, as do the packagers of the The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, but none of them get things wholly correct. This leaves a number of gaps unfillled, not least the varying intertitles (which would be easier to fix and more noticeable than changing Jesus), and questions as to what point the film got hand coloured (the books say not until 1914, but all the other evidence points the other way).

    If anyone knows more about these films, please do post some comments. Alternatively, if you would like to get hold of these films and decide for yourself The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ is widely available and I get the impression that the others will up on eBay again soon (or can be bought on VHS from the link above).

    Matt

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    Monday, February 27, 2006

    Odyssey in Rome

    Those people who are lucky enough to have already seen Abel Ferrara's new film Mary (discussed last month), as well as those, like me, who are still anticipating it, may be interested to know about the documentary about the preparation and production of the film, called Odyssey in Rome. The documentary's website is mainly links to the various companies and individuals who have contributed to it, but there is also a trailer and a synopsis which discusses both Ferrara's original film, as well as this making of documentary (directed by Alex Grazioli). The synopsis of the original film has a couple of interesting snippets:
    Abel Ferrara... has defined Mary as the epilogue of his cinematographic career. Intrigued by what happens when a film wraps up and how an actor/actress disengages from their fictitious role, Ferrara explores the fragile relationship between fiction and reality, in the context of a contentious storyline that addresses what it means to have Christian faith...

    Mary tells a story of the making of a movie, in which the director, casts himself as Jesus Christ. The actress Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche) plays Mary Magdelene, who whilst searching for the essence of her character, finds herself completely consumed by it and embarks upon a spiritual quest to Jerusalem following filming. Later, Ted, a New York City news reporter initiates his own personal crisis provoked by hosting a television documentary about the life of Christ...Mary, looks set to create a storm as it questions who Mary Magdelene really was, why she has been portrayed as a prostitute as opposed to apostle, and the relationship between the mass media and organised religion.
    I've not read or seen The Da Vinci Code yet, but that last paragraph makes me wonder if they might make n interesting double bill.

    As for the documentary film itself, I noted a couple of things from the trailer. Firstly the opening shots of the trailer were great to look at. Pretty soon however, I began thinking how similar the start of this trailer was to the start of one of The Passion of the Christ's trailers. The soundtrack is a female soloist doing lots of "ahs" and singing in some middle eastern sounding tongue, a low shots, and then one of Ferrara standing on this own in the desert, all interspersed with the following dialogue a line at a time:
    in a time when faith is being questioned
    there are artists striving for perspective
    with the odds against him
    a filmmaker searches for truth
    which sounds very like bits of the trailers' text, and the kind of things that were being said about Gibson whilst simultaneously subverting that a playing Ferrara as the true messianic artist. Perhaps I'm reading too much in, but it seems to me a cleverly composed opening.

    The rest of the trailer seems to focus on the trouble they had funding the film. Whilst this is interesting in the context of the financial phenomenon that was The Passion, I hope the final cut of the documentary includes a bit more than this. Ferrara is a very interesting director, and he has some great actors working with him as well. Hopefully we'll get to hear plenty from them.

    I also have no idea what the release plans are for this documentary. Even despite Mary's Grand Jury prize at Venice, the movie has struggled to find a distributor. I would assume then that Odyssey in Rome won't be released independently, but will be an extra on the Mary DVD. That said, according to IMDB, it will be playing at this year's Venice festival.

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    Friday, February 24, 2006

    Last Temptation Scene Guide

    After yesterday's discussion on The Last Temptation of Christ I thought I would supplement it with a more formalised scene layout. As usual scripture quotations will be in line with my citation policy.
    Fictional Intro -(approx. 40 minutes)
    Woman Caught in Adultery - (John 8:1-11)
    Sermon on the Plain - (Luke 6:17-27)
    John the Baptist - (Mark 1:1-12)
    Temptation - (Matt 4:1-11)
    Driving out Demons - (Mark 1:34,39)
    Water into Wine - (John 2:1-11)
    Lazarus Raised - (John 11:38-44)
    Clearing the Temple - (Mark 11:12-19)
    Triumphal Entry - (Mark 11:1-11)
    Last Supper - (Mark 14:12-31)
    Gethsemane - (Mark 14:32-50)
    Pilate trial - (Mark 15:1-15)
    Beating by Guards - (Mark 15:16,19)
    Crucifixion - (Mark 15:24-32)
    Fictional Last Temptation sequence - (approx. 40 minutes)
    Jesus Dies - (John 19:30)

    A few further comments:

    Firstly, the film probably bears the most similarity to the gospel of Mark. Whilst the way I cite scripture makes the above evidence look more compelling than it is, there is certainly plenty to suggest that comparison. Firstly, like this film, Mark's gospel does not include Jesus's birth and childhood, or his early adulthood for that matter. It is also the most vague regarding the resurrection. Whilst there's some debate about what the ending of the original text was, in it's canonical form we are left with an open ending from which the reader/viewer draws their own conclusion. Furthermore, Mark's gospel has Jesus very much a man of action, moving around at a pace. Whilst parts of the film are very slow, this is mainly Jesus' personal reflections (the internal stuff). The sequences showing his active ministry move at a pace. The gospel is also the briefest, and severall segments of the film are stripped right down to the bare essentials (e.g. the trial scene).

    I think this is the only Jesus film I can think of where he clears the temple before his triumphal entry. The latter scene is shot a bit unusually, but I like the way Scorsese uses the two scenes here. In a strange way, reversing the two actions reflects a lot more of Jesus's intent to today's audiences than maintaining the scriptural order.

    Finally, the timings of the two major fictional sequences are guesses.

    Matt

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    Thursday, February 23, 2006

    Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

    Martin Scorsese's adaptation Nikos Kazantzakis's novel caused so much controversy on it's initial release that the film itself was left largely undiscussed. Thankfully as the dust has settled the film itself has been discussed more insightfully in recent years.

    The film opens just before Jesus is about to begin his ministry - only he doesn't know it yet. The opening scene begins with a God shot over a tormented Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) struggling to accept the call of God on his life. In an attempt to flee that call he builds crosses so the Romans can crucify his countrymen. In an attempt to follow it he tries to make amends with Magdalene - he blames himself for her slide into prostitution after he broke off their engagement.

    Eventually compelled by the voice he hears he attempts to purify himself in the desert. He is found there by Judas, a zealot, and returns to normal society only to prevent Magdalene getting stoned, and turning the incident into an opportunity to preach Luke's Sermon on the Plain. It is the film's strongest sequence. In most Jesus films, his mere presence is enough to pacify the supposedly angry mob. Here Jesus steps into real conflict and danger, his victory unassured. The frightened Jesus has, for a moment, become a brave, risk taker. His actions give him an instant following, and as Jesus escorts Magdalene away he worries whether he can say the right things to his disciples before delivering the beatitudes.

    Such is the way with Scorsese's Christ. Uncertain, but undeniably anointed and special. Inconsistent, both with himself and the Christ of scripture, yet determined to find the right path, even though he senses it leads to his horrific death.

    There are a number of other strong aspects to the film, which is routed far more in an earthy realism than most Christ films. When he raises Lazarus, the crowd recoils from the smell. As Lazarus pulls Jesus towards him, Jesus looks terrified of the power within him pulling him towards his destiny. When we see the wedding at Cana, Scorsese doesn't flinch from showing us a sacrifice there - a far cry from our own "white weddings". The miracle is delivered with a cool nonchalance followed by a wicked grin as his confounded disciples stare at him dumbstruck. This was also the first time on film that Jesus danced. Finally Jesus's trial before Pilate (played by Daivd Bowie) is an unspectacular affair. Pilate dismisses him to his fate with mild disdain. Jesus to him is just another attempted Messiah, and Pilate treats him like all the rest. In another moment of harsh reality, Jesus is crucified naked, stripped of all his dignity.

    But the film has its weaknesses too. Firstly some segments of it are just tiresome, almost as if having faced down so much criticism for even attempting to make the film, he was impervious to any criticism of his artistic choices. In other places the film is just bizarre. John the Baptist is surrounded by a host of naked ecstatics who wail so loudly that Scorsese has to turn the background sound off so we can hear what John is saying. Shortly afterwards Jesus rips out his own heart. During the Eucharist the wine turns so literally into Jesus's blood that one of the disciples removes a clot from his mouth. Some of these maybe the fault of the book, but some are certainly original to the movie.

    The most famous sequence in the film is the last temptation after which the film is named. As he hangs from the cross the background noise again disappears as Jesus appears to mentally moving out from reality. A young girl takes him from the cross and delivers him to a waiting Magdalene in time for their wedding (and she is in a white dress). They marry, have sex, but Magdalene dies. Ultimately Jesus marries Mary of Bethany, and sleeps with her sister before he and his children one day met the apostle Paul, who is preaching Christ crucified and resurrected eventhough, in this sequence it never happens. An aged Jesus is then found on his death bed by Judas and the others, whereupon he realises this is a temptation, and one which he must reject. Instantly he returns to the reality of the cross, and dies with a smile on his face declaring that "it is accomplished".

    Like the rest of the film, the sequence is mixed. Criticisms of the film focused so strongly on this scene, that they seemed to imply that the primary temptation was adultery, not merely the temptation to settle and have a normal life. But the power of that scene is swiftly undermined when Jesus sleep with both Mary and Martha. Equally strange is the scene with Paul who seems content to preach Jesus's victory over death regardless of its truthfulness. Is the film saying Paul and/or the resurrection was a fraud (and most seem to understand it)? Whilst this cannot be ruled out, the logic of this extended sequence is that ultimately Jesus sees that it is false. Perhaps the relationships with Mary and Martha, and the conversation with this Paul figure are where the inconsistencies of this temptation to choose his own way over God's breakdown andthus are highlighted.

    The ending of the film was also criticied for failing to show a resurrection. Such a charge shows a terrible failure to read the film correctly. The subject matter was how Jesus faced this last temptation. The resurrection is as irrelevant to it's subject matter as the nativity. Yet nevertheless the flash of colours and the optimistic sounding bells that chime as Jesus dies and the credits start to roll, certainly give some hint that this is not the end. But what is most powerful about this scene is the way that it is the only Jesus film which captures one of the fundamental themes of Christianity - the victory of the cross. All other Jesus films capture this as a sad moment. Of course the ending of the story is so well known that the sorrow is never overwhelming, Nevertheless most films, rightly, portray this scene negatively, even if that is underlined with a sense of thankfulness. So it is important to have at least one picture in the Jesus film canon that actually captures the victory of this moment, and the hope that it brings.

    Last Temptation of Christ then, is an important, if flawed work. Whilst its flaws, which are both theological and artistic, weaken the film as a whole, they do not damage irredeemably the strong sequences in the film which shed fresh light, and bring new challenges to an old, old story.

    Matt

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    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    Just Started Reading "Last Temptation"

    I've been meaning to read Nikos Kazantzakis' "Last Temptation" for a long time now. I found Martin Scorsese's film adaptation very challenging and somewhat pivotal in my understanding of film and faith, and so reading the source work has always been something I wanted to do. The release of Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on prompted me to up my efforts and someone bought me it for Christmas, and I finally found time to start it the other day.

    I was struck by reading the introduction that like Scorsese this is very much a genuine exploration of the Christian faith. So in the prologue Kazantzakis states
    This book is not a biography, it is the confession of every man who struggles...I am certain that every free man who reads this book so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ.
    . That quote reminded me of a quote from "Scorsese on Scorsese" where he explains that the reason he made the film was "to get to know Jesus better".

    So much of the controversy around the book and the film seems to be people claiming that the works are trying to desecrate Christianity or some similar charge. The above quotes should surely lay such charges to waste. These works are not exploiting Jesus for laughs (as in say South Park - although there are arguments for the redemptive value even of that), or trying to discredit him (like The Da Vinci Code). They may not share my conclusion about Jesus, and may, for many, have strayed to far from orthodox Christianity, but at the same time they have a certain validity because they are part of their creators' journeys of faith.

    I've said before that Christians often think they are the only ones who are interested in Jesus. This is simply not the case - we don't have a monopoly on taking Jesus seriously. And sometimes the insights that others bring can shed light in new areas that those of us in the church can fail to notice. That doesn't mean swallowing the faults in the works as well as the good, but simply that such pieces give us the opportunity to learn something.

    As for the orthodoxy of the works, thus far I can only speak of the film. However, it strikes me that the films are far more orthodox theologically than many seminaries. Yes, Jesus is considered sinful before his ministry (a view held by many for what it's worth), but he is also unquestionably the Son of God. The temptation he faces is not so much to engage in an illicit affair, but to settle for a normal life with a wife and children. It affirms that Jesus died for humanity's sins, and implies that he was resurrected. So the theology of this film is far less scandalous than some other Jesus films, such as Jesus of Montreal.

    Part of the reason I've posted these comments here is because I want to discuss the film at sometime in the near future and I don't want to get bogged down in the controversy. In the meantime I look forward to comparing the book to the film, and loving Christ "more than ever before".

    Matt

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    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    Gideon: The Liberator

    As far as I am aware, there have only ever been two films made about the story of Gideon - Great Leaders of the Bible: Gideon (1965 - info. at Amazon), and Gideon: The Liberator (1958), part of the Living Bible Collection which I have just started working my way through.

    It's strange that Gideon has fared so poorly in the cinema. Samson, the other major hero from the book of Judges, has featured in more films than any other biblical character, except for Jesus. Whilst it could be argued that Samson's story is given the most space in Judges, the word count of these stories is hardly in proportion to the number of film portrayals. Arguments from the structure of Judges are no more conclusive. Judges is bookended by a prologue (1:1-3:6) and an epilogue (17:1-21:25). In between the exploits of the various judges are recounted. Whilst it could be argued that, in coming last, Samson's story forms the climax of this main section, most commentators observe a chiastic structure in Judges, with the story of Gideon being of central importance. Whilst both stories feature well in Sunday schools, I suspect the reason that Samson is the more popular when it comes to dramatising the story is simply because of the love angle and the absence of any female characters in Gideon's story.

    Gideon: The Liberator, however, is something of a halfway house between the two, being essentially a dramatised Sunday School story. Produced by Concordia / Family Films productions, it's mere 14 minutes of screen time suggests the story is being disseminated for those with shorter attention spans. Add to this that the battle, and subsequent rout of the Midianites is all off screen, and it's clear where the film is aiming.

    Up until the battle scenes the story shows remarkable faithfulness to the text. A prophet delivers an oracle, and shortly afterwards an angel finds Gideon in a winepress, and commissions him, staying around only long enough to light Gideon's sacrifice. Gideon then destroys the altar to Baal, but is protected by his father's speech. Gideon lays out his fleeces, gathers and selects his army before creeping in to the Midianite camp to hear a soldiers dream and it's interpretation. The pre-battle sequence concludes with the army lighting their torches, hiding them under their lamps, and smashing them on the top of the hill as they run toward the Midianite camp.

    The film then cuts to a very brief report of Gideon's army moping up the fleeing Midianites, with no mentions of the dispute with the Ephraimites, and the vengance taken against Succoth and Peniel. The final scene is Gideon, who has suddenly gone grey (the sign of being distinguished and wise) with his arm around his son (presumably Abimelech) refusing the kingship that is offered to him. No mention is made of the collection he requests, or the idol he makes as a result. Given that many, particularly those who consider Judges' structure to be chiastic, consider this incident to epitomise the whole book and be it's pivotal point, this omission is disappointing - if not entirely surprising.

    It's a long time bug bear of mine, but I do dislike it when people make films about the three dimensional humans of the bible that God uses inspite of their weaknesses, and reduces them to one dimensional robotically obedient heroes - removing their humanity in an attempt to portray them more reverently. Whilst the story doesn't completely ignore the fact that Gideon was basically killing his enemies, it does seem to consider that a bit of a tangent from what this film sees as a story about how to follow God. When the biblical narrative diverges from that agenda, rather than that shaping "the agenda" it is truncated, sweeping such nuances and reality under the carpet. But as I said above this is just a Sunday School type of film that's 14 minutes long.

    Gideon: The Liberator was written by Betty Luerssen and directed by Edward Dew. Dew directed several episodes from the series, and had starred in almost 100 films in the forties and fifties, including brief appearances in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Citizen Kane.

    Matt

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    Monday, February 20, 2006

    Guess what I missed - Son of Man (1969)


    There's a lot of talk at the moment about the new South African Film by Mark Dornford-May Son of Man. This however is actually at least the third filmed version of Jesus' life of that title. The first, as far as I am aware was basically a shot for shot remake of The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ with one or two additional scenes added in. (FWIW it's currently available on ebay)

    Prior to Dornford-May's film, the one most people have talked about when they talk about Son of Man was a 1969 filmed play by Dennis Potter, starring Colin Blakely as Jesus, Brian Blessed (Peter), Robert Hardy (Pilate), Bernard Hepton (Caiaphas), and Edward Hardwicke (Judas). It was directed by Gareth Davies. I first became aware of this film after reading Philip Yancey's book The Jesus I Never Knew - a book that is in many ways responsible for me ending up running this site.

    Until recently it had only been shown on TV 3 times - the last time being in 1987 after Blakely's death from Leukemia. Clips were available on video if you bought the course based on Yancey's book. However, I've just found out that it was recently shown on BBC4 four weeks ago. Needless to say I'm very disappointed to have missed it. Whilst I have seen it (thanks to a rare showing at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham), it's a shame to have missed the chance to get a copy on DVD.

    On the plus side, it does mean two things. Firstly, that it may have generated sufficient interest to lead to an eventual DVD release, or at least a repeat viewing. Secondly, it has generated a bit more information on the web and a few more stills from the play. The film was shown as part of BBC4's Potter Season, so there's some information there and some useful looking links. As for the stills - a number of these have been coloured. The play was originally shot in black and white, and the fact that a few of the stills remain in black and white implies that the version shown was still black and white, it is just a few of the stills that have been coloured. There are a few interesting comments about the screening here.

    For what it's worth I wrote a few brief comments on the film for the IMDb

    Matt

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    Friday, February 17, 2006

    Jesus Film Quiz

    I came across this quiz earlier in the week:
    Christ in the Movies
    It's from the Guardian - the British newspaper I most closely identify with. I do disagree with plenty of the commentary there, but then that's part of the paper's appeal, but I digress. I'm not sure how long it's been posted for.

    I have to hang my head in shame though and admit that I only got 9 out of 10 - I got the Simpsons question at the end wrong.

    Anyone keen on this kind of thing migth also appreciate the biblical studies version of Holywood squares, featuring 9 film Jesus' in the panel. Not being familiar with celebrity/Holywood [sic.] squares it took me while to work out how to play. But good fun, and possibly a useful teaching tool for some?

    Matt

    Thursday, February 16, 2006

    Films about Esther

    Yesterday's post about the forthcoming film about Esther One Night With the King made me think about some of the other films about this story. It's been reasonably popular in film history, no doubt in part because it features one of the few female heroes. On the other hand, that does raise the question of why there have been so few films about, say, Deborah (not to mention some of the others).

    Perhaps Esther's story is more palatable to a society which, by en large, still views beauty as a woman's primary asset. Depicting the life of a biblical heroin who is a warrior / prophetess / leader is perhaps more uncomfortable than the life of a woman who uses hospitality and beauty to get around her man (female archetype anyone). Furthermore most Christians leaders / father would probably rather their daughters emulated the more pliant Esther, than the more dominant Deborah. They are both brave and faithful women of God, and both stories need to be told, but I wonder what it says about us that the one story is preferred again and again over the other.

    Anyway, I wanted to make a few brief comments on the films about Esther that have been made thus far.

    Early Silents
    1910 and 1911 saw an explosion of Old Testament films on the silver screen. More films based on the Hebrew bible were made in those two years than had been made since the birth of the medium. So it's no surprise that we find four films being made about Esther in that time period alone. Esther, Esther and Mordecai and The Marriage of Esther were both released in 1910, followed hot on their heels by Esther: A Biblical Episode in 1911. Two more films, both simply titled Esther followed in 1913 and 1916. The Undertow, (also known as Esther of the People) was a "modern" day allegory of the story, featuring a factory owner called Mr. King and one of his foremen named Hammond. Three years later there was a German film called Das Buch Esther starring Stella Harf (left).

    Golden Era
    During the first 40 years of sound, only two films were made about Esther. The first, produced in 1948, was Queen Esther directed by John T. Coyle who went onto direct The Living Christ Series (detailed collection of posts here). Twelve years later, a young Joan Collins took the lead role in Esther and the King (1960). I'm actually yet to see either, though I write knowing that I have Esther and the King waiting on DVD.

    Television Era
    Esther fared reasonably well in the "TV era" - notably the 70s where 3 films, the dutch Esther (1975), The Greatest Heroes of the Bible : The History of Esther (1978) and The Thirteenth Day: The Story of Esther (1978) covered the story. The latter film starred Olivia Hussey, straight after she had finished playing Mary the mother of Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth. More recently there have been a number of modern versions of the Story

    Esther (Dir: Amos Gitai)
    Probably my favourite of all the films about Esther, this semi-modernised version of the story, deliberately challenges both the conventions of cinema, and the standard reading of the text. Gitai frequently "breaks the fourth wall" with characters in the story directly addressing the camera. Ultimately this results in the final sequence where the actors tell you about their relationship with the text they have been exploring, and how they see the cycle of revenge that exists in the text as continuing today. For them the story epitomises the problems that remain in the middle east today. The film also shocks in the way it presents the harem. Whether this is historically accurate is questionable, but it certainly bulldozes through the sanitised Sunday school version of the story. There is more on this film here, here, and here (scroll to end for that one).

    The Bible Collection: Esther (dir:Raffaele Mertes)
    The bible collection has filmed more biblical stories than anyone else, and so unsurprisingly this is one of the stories they included. The film perhaps gives the most realistic portrayal of what it meant for Esther to be taken from her familiar surroundings and placed in his harem. Her one night with the king is shown as one she dreads, losing her virginity to a stranger, in ways against her will. It's a strong point of an otherwise unremarkable film. Louise Lombard's performance as the eponymous heroin swings between convincing and sensitive, and melodramatic. It's worth watching, if only because it has wider appeal than Gitai's film, but still remains challenging to the glamour/fantasy version that perpetuates in the minds of many. The film is reviewed here and here

    Veggie Tales
    At the other end of the scale, the Veggie tales series sanitises the story to such an extent that it removes all dramatic tension from the film whatsoever. The Jews aren't at risk of being wiped out by a jealous megalomaniac. They simply are in danger of being exiled to the island of perpetual tickling. I must admit I don't understand the approach of this series and other attempts to purge the bible of mentions of death, unpleasantness and other aspects of real life. Sooner or later children will learn about death, and that it's in the bible, and the longer this goes on, the harder it will hit them.

    Regarding the current version, it seems to be most similar to the Bible Collection version, certainly in terms of production values the sets seem to be similarly glossy, and lavish. It's encouraging that the story mentions Xerxes' harem, but it remains to be seen whether the film will go beyond a glamourised shallow version of the story to unearth some of the more challenging and controversial aspects of the story. For what it's worth the music on the trailer (Enya, in upbeat mode) is not encouraging. There is an additional article on the film here.

    Matt

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    Wednesday, February 15, 2006

    One Night with the King

    UPDATE: REVIEW - My review for this film is published here.

    In searching out Old Testament films made in this decade for yesterday's post I found one I forgotten about - One Night with the King, a soon to be released film about Esther. (Thanks to Tyler Williams for his excellent Old Testament on Film list).

    Anyway, I did a bit of information seeking about the film. It's got a very impressive cast list. Although Tiffany Dupont (who plays Esther) is unknown to me, Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole are major stars, albeit of yesteryear, whilst John Rhys Davies (from the Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings trilogies), and John Noble (also from Lord of the Rings) are also established actors. The only worrying name on the cast list is Luke Goss, who's best known to Britons as the drummer from Bros.. Apart from anything he really doesn't look the part of King Xerxes (Goss is blonde).

    The official site for the film contains a four minute trailer, stills, a bit on the story, a cast list, and some making of documentaries which I've not had the chance to watch yet. They also seem to be trying to replicate the marketing strategy of The Passion (as did the marketing team for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) by encouraging people to sign up as volunteers to market the film. As this is a film with appeal to Christians and Jews they talk about how they want the film to "inspire a godly world-view through the entertainment medium", which doesn't have quite the same edge as the hard sell The Passion's marketing team were able to give their film.

    There are a few other sites of interest. There is a decent unofficial fan site - www.queen-esther-movie.com, and an early article on the film from The Guardian, which reveals a interesting few details (such as the fact that the film cost $16m to make), before focusing in on O'Toole and Shairf. The Guardian claims this film is the first time they have worked together since Lawrence of Arabia (although the IMDB lists three others).

    Two further things I'd like to highlight. Firstly, the release date for the film was put back a whole year. Originally set for release around Easter in 2005, it was moved back to September, and then to Christmas, and now it seems the release date will be March 2006 - in time for the Jewish festival of Purim.

    Secondly, the source material for the book seems to be Tommy Tenney's novel Hadassah: One Night With The King. This suggests many things. Tenney is a evangelical Christian writer, best known for his book "The God Chasers" - a book I have a number of concerns about (although I admit I have never actually read it). This confirms the impression I got from the official site that this is not only a film aimed at the devout, but made by the devout. Indeed Gener8Xion was also responsible for making Christian Movie The Omega Code.

    There's some discussion of this film at Arts and Faith, and blog post from Peter Chattaway.

    Matt

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    Tuesday, February 14, 2006

    The Cash-in of the Christ?


    Reading about a couple of the forthcoming bible films has confirmed what I expected after the box office success of The Passion of the Christ - a lot of people are now making films about Jesus. Jesus Christ is a central and pivotal figure in western history, and so the fact that some of these films have been made is nothing to do with Gibson's film. However, I imagine that most films about the life of Christ that in production, or have recently been released are either because artists interested in the subject matter have suddenly found people prepared to finance their films, or worse because they want to cash in on the newly discovered market, or alternatively because the film-makers want to correct some of the problems they see with Gibson's movie. (FWIW, many NT scholars have proposed that this is what the author of John is doing with his gospel).

    That said the 90s was also a pretty busy time for bible films being made, particularly as the millennium drew closer. In terms of feature length "films about Jesus" (a slippery term) from the 90s, I can think of 7 (Jesus, Miracle Maker, Book of Life, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Jesus Christ Superstar (Stage version), Visual Bible: Matthew, The Revolutionary) - the majority being released in 1999. So far in the 00s (noughties?), we have already had 7 (Inquisition, Second Coming, The Cross, Man Dancin', Gospel of John, Judas and The Passion of the Christ) with another few on release at the moment (Son of Man, Mary), and two more in production (The Nativity and Colour of the Cross). Even assuming that the two Jesus film projects that have gone very quiet (Gospel of Mark, and The Lamb) don't make it that's still 11 films and it's only 2006! (And I have probably missed one or two).

    That said, in terms of bible films in general, the 90s produced far more films, largely due to the Bible Collection who produced 13 films about the bible, 10 of which were Old Testament stories made in the 90s (Genesis: Creation and Flood, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samson, David, Solomon, Esther, Jeremiah), with Jesus also being a 90s release, and only two New Testament films being made by them in 2000/02 (Paul, and The Apocalypse - I am ignoring the other four"Close to Jesus" films the Bible Collection churned out).

    Aside from the Bible Collection, there were 6 other films made in the 90s (The Prince of Egypt, La Genese, Noah's Ark, Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, Visual Bible: Acts and The Emigrant, but only 3 so far in the 00s (Joseph - King of Dreams, In the Beginning, and One Night with the King and only Rabbi Paul that I'm aware of in the works (again there are a couple of Moses films that have gone very quiet).

    Meaning 90s:00s sums up as OT films 15:3, Jesus films 7:11, Other NT films 1:3. In other words a total of 23:17 with a third of the decade still remaining, but Jesus films have already outstripped the numbers made in the 90s even with the millennium. Given only 5 of these were released before 2004, I think The Passion has had a significant impact in this respect.

    Matt

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    Monday, February 13, 2006

    Faith and Film Critics' Circle - Best of 2005 Awards

    I'm part of the Faith and Film Critics' Circle. One of the things we do is give out our own awards, including one for "Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Issues". The results of this years winners were announced at the end of last week, but I was too busy to post them then, but, if you've not seen them already here they are:
    Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Issues - Millions
    Best Narrative Film - Millions
    Best Documentary - Born Into Brothels
    Best Actor - Capote, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
    Best Actress - Walk The Line, Reese Witherspoon
    Best Child Actor/Actress - Millions, Alexander Nathan Etel
    Best Supporting Actor - Cinderella Man, Paul Giamatti
    Best Supporting Actress - A History of Violence, Maria Bello
    Best Ensemble Cast - A History of Violence
    Best Original Screenplay - Millions (tie)
    Best Adapted Screenplay - Munich
    Best Cinematography - March of the Penguins
    Best Director - David Cronenberg, A History of Violence
    Best Original Score - Munich, John Williams
    Best Film For the Whole Family - Millions
    You can see the other nominees, read about the voting procedure from the official page.

    Personally I'm a bit disappointed. I wasn't impressed by Millions, which won 8 awards. I just don't see what the other critics see in it. The only thing I can think is that it's just one of those films which works better on the other side of the Atlantic (which is strange as it's a British made film). The other major disappointments for me were that Sin City (my review) didn't win best cinematography (or even come close), and that Dear Wendy (my review) lost out to Munich for best score. But you have to take the rough with the smooth with all these things. Last year I was really pleased that Dogville (my review) won the "most spiritual" award ahead of The Passion of the Christ (even though for most years I would have been please for The Passion to win). What's more, it's a tremendous privilege working with these guys.

    The final list also leaves me kicking myself that I didn't see A History of Violence, and that I never got the chance to see Born into Brothels, and hotly anticipating Capote. I've always appreciated Philip Seymour Hoffman's work, and I really hope he finally gets the Oscar he deserves next month.

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    Friday, February 10, 2006

    Another new "Black Jesus" movie

    It's funny how you don't get any black Jesus films for years and then three come along all at once. I've posted quite a few times on the South African Jesus film which was recently playing at Sundance, and I suppose that you could count the filmed version of the recent rock opera Hero!, which was released on DVD a year or two back. Now Variety are reporting on another film featuring a black man playing Jesus - Color of the Cross.

    It's written and directed by Jean-Claude La Marre who also stars as Jesus (going a step further than Mel Gibson), and it seems to be fairly political. One of the producers is Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray who talks "about the negative imaging of black America". The report also notes that "In addition to Jesus, black actors will also portray Mary..., Joseph and Judas, while the rest of the cast will be white or Middle Eastern.

    Thanks to Peter T Chattaway for pointing this story out to me. He notes that it's unclear from the article "whether this film will be set in the past or present". He concludes that it will be set in the past, whereas I'm not so sure. I hope he's right as both Hero! and Son of Man are set in contemporary times, although Hero! loses any prophetic / insightful edge, by setting the story in a fictional police-state America. It would be nice to see a black Jesus film that put the story in it's original era. I think it could bring a lot of fresh insights.

    There's also brief articles at UPI and Empire, with some discussion of the film at the latter.

    Matt

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    Writer Mike Rich on The Nativity

    There's a little bit from Mike Rich and his script for The Nativity at Variety. Bits of this have been mentioned elsewhere but new, at least to me, were these excerpts:
    "I think that this story is a natural bookend to The Passion," said Rich, whose credits include "Finding Forrester," "Radio" and "The Rookie." "Everyone knows the basic outline, but it's also such a timeless story of faith and hope."....

    ...The inspiration for penning a script came to Rich in late 2004 when he read simultaneous cover stories about the Nativity in Time and Newsweek. "It seemed to me that although this was a challenging story, it was also really compelling," he added.
    The article also talks about Rich's desire to flesh out "key characters such as King Herod; John the Baptist's parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth; the shepherds who were witness to Jesus' birth; and the arrival of the three kings from the Orient."

    Still not sure what to make of the information coming out regarding this film. I'm encouraged by buzz about Hardwicke, but the mention of "three kings from the Orient" doesn't sit with me particularly well. On another notes the article also informs us that "the script covers the two-year period of Mary and Joseph's life, culminating in their leaving Nazareth and journeying 100 miles to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus". Some scholars would say that only Luke shows Mary and Joseph making this journey, Matthew seems to imply that they lived in Bethlehem at the start of the story, only moving to Nazareth after Herod had died.

    Variety also talks about the attempts to get Catherine Hardwicke to direct, which I discussed yesterday

    There's also a 2004 interview with Rich at the Heartland Film Festival, where he names one of my favourite films, Field of Dreams, and The Quiet Man as films that inspired him.

    UPDATE
    There's an August 2006 interview with Mike Rich which I discuss here

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    Thursday, February 09, 2006

    Hardwicke in Negotiations to direct The Nativity

    It's a little embarrassing that Jeffrey Overstreet always beats me to the good stories, but there you go. Two weeks ago he discovered a script called The Nativity had been sold, now he's got a name for the director.

    According to The Hollywood Reporter "Catherine Hardwicke is in negotiations to direct Nativity, New Line Cinema's look at the life of the Virgin Mary before the birth of Christ. You have to pay a subscription to read the full story, but Cinematical includes a few more snippets including the news that:
    the screenplay follows Mary and Joseph's life...as their love, faith and beliefs are tested." Over the course of their travels form Nazareth to Bethlehem, the couple interact with a slew of biblical figures, including John the Baptist and King Herod.
    Personally I've not heard of Hardwicke, who directed the controversial Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, Quoting Hollywood Reporter, Cinematical states that New Line want Hardwicke because she'll will bring a "strong female perspective". Overstreet buzzes "I'm trembling. This is incredible. When I posted the news about the script sale a few days back, I wondered who would direct it, and I never guessed it would be someone with such a knack for hard-hitting realism".

    I'm pleased that Overstreet and Cinematical are so pleased about Hardwicke being wooed to direct. In my original blog on the script I noted that I didn't feel that excited about another traditional take on the nativity, but the excitement about Hardwicke gives me hope that we might get something more substantial.

    Matt

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    Wednesday, February 08, 2006

    Book Review: Perspectives on the Passion of the Christ

    I mentioned a few weeks back that this book has been re-issued, under the slightly shorter title “On the Passion of the Christ”. I had never got around to reading the original. And as that’s now available for significantly less than the re-issue, and largely the same essays’ save a new intro by Paula Fredriksen I thought I’d go for the cheaper option.

    It is interesting that they have dropped the word “Perspectives” from the new book’s title. Certainly my main criticism of this book is that nearly all of the essayists, except perhaps Amy Jill Levine, strongly criticise the film, and the reasons for doing so are generally fairly similar. It’s not even like Levine offers unqualified praise for the movie – her essay is actually a fairly balanced discussion of the different viewpoints and why they are held. But she, at least, manages to understand why this film became so important for evangelicals.

    It’s difficult to see who is to blame for this lack of balance. The individual authors had their briefs, and could only really offer their own insights. On the other hand the editors will point out that they invited a broad spectrum of Christians to write, including two evangelicals, Ben Witherington III, and Jim Wallis. Unfortunately, neither of them actually like the movie either – whilst they are entitled to their views (and I agree with a lot of what they are saying), unfortunately they are hardly representative of their constituents, and it leaves the book as a whole looking painfully one sided.

    Whilst the scholarly reaction to the film, has been largely negative there have been some evangelical scholars who have praised the film. Perhaps those who commissioned the book should have sought more essays that would give the other side of the argument, and had the strength to chop some of the essays which give us little that isn’t raised elsewhere. (Perhaps the fact that this is a Miramax book had something to do with it.)

    The central plank of this book is the (in)famous Ad Hoc Scholars report, handed to Gibson by a group of nine scholars who had seen an early version of the script. seven of those scholars contribute their own chapters to this volume, and the report is included in full. Having heard so much about this report, it was good to finally read the report itself. It contains many interesting insights, and the appendices, which provide a great deal of content incredibly succinctly, are impressive. However, if the intention of the report was to influence Gibson for the good then the tone of the report seems far more likely to rub him up the wrong way. (And it did!)

    One of the other interesting chapters in this book was Deborah Caldwell’s “Selling Passion”. She provides an account of the run up to the film which is refreshingly different from not only all the other chapters in this book, but also those in other similar books.

    Whilst the two other collections of scholars’ essays on the film that I have read, are also generally negative about the film, both manage to gain a greater degree of balance. “Re-viewing the Passion” includes essays from those more versed in film to appreciate Gibson’s visual work and present the film in the context of “visual theology”. Robert K. Johnston, Darren J.N. Middleton, Gaye W. Ortiz and Peter T. Chattaway all have good credentials as writers on film, and it shows. For me this is the strongest element of the film and as a result this book is probably the most positive of the three whilst still highlighting the movie’s weak points.

    “Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ” is on the whole more critical, but makes two very smart moves. Firstly, the opening section of the book finds John Dominic Crossan and Mark Goodacre gives responses to the film as a whole. Crossan slates it, Goodacre is far more positive, albeit with a few reservations. The effect of this is that the following chapters are read through the filters of what Crossan and Goodacre say. The later chapter then is particularly significant as the remaining chapters generally offer criticism of the film – many of which have, thus, already been countered to some extent.

    The other strength of the book is that the middle section broadens the debate by focussing on different individuals, or episodes individuals within the story, so there are chapters on Mary, the Jewish leaders and the trials of Jesus. The effect of this is that the book has a far wider reach than “Perspectives on The Passion of the Christ”.

    In fact, this is the other major problem with this book. It is incredibly repetitive. By the time you have read all 18 chapters you have learnt by rote that history testifies that Pilate was brutish unlike the Passion, that the gospels were theologised history rather than eye-witness accounts, and that they would have spoken in Greek and not Latin. The effect is (somewhat ironically) that you too have been battered into submission.

    There are other minor praises and quibbles. It is interesting hearing Witherington and Wallis speak out against the majority in their communities. Adele Reinhartz’s expertise on Jesus films always brings an interesting perspective, and Stephen Prothero sets the film in the context of the varying cultural portraits of the American Jesus. Conversely, Steve Martin’s “”Script Notes”” are both out of place in a book such as this, and more reprehensibly, not really that funny. For a book that criticises Gibson’s star power in places this seems like a particularly strange move.

    The other area that could have better is the ordering of the book. For a work that is significantly linked to the Ad Hoc Scholars report – it would have made sense to place that book nearer the beginning. Similarly some of the other chapters that look at the context surrounding the film, such as Prothero’s, might have been best placed towards the start of the work.

    Overall, there are a few really good insights in the book, and the more popular criticisms are argued persuasively, but the book is marred by, at times, tedious repetition and a general lack of balance that make it less interesting than similar in-depth explorations of The Passion of the Christ.

    Matt

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    Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    Congratulations to Peter T Chattaway

    Meant to post this yesterday, but didn't get the opportunity. I've known Peter for almost four years, and our shared love of bible film has made us good friends, so I was delighted to hear yesterday that his wife Deanna has just given birth to twins - ELizabeth and Thomas. I guess anyone that reads his Film Chat blog will probably know this already, but if not here's the link to the relevant post and photos - FilmChat: What I've been doing with my weekend

    Congratulations to them all.

    Matt

    Monday, February 06, 2006

    Rabbi Paul: The Movie?

    After reporting last month that someone has bought a film script on the Nativity, another Bible film is now listed at DoneDeal as having just been sold. Rabbi Paul, based on writer Bruce Chilton's book of the same name, will look at the life of the great apostle. Here are the details:
    Title: Rabbi Paul
    Log line: The life story of Saul of Tarsus who, due to divine intervention, turns his life around and becomes the founder of Christianity and the Apostle Paul.
    Writer: Bruce Chilton (author)
    Agent: n/a
    Buyer: Mandalay and Prelude Pictures
    Price: n/a
    Genre: Bio-Drama
    Logged: 2/2/06
    More: Biography. Alan Riche, Peter Riche, Mandalay Integrated Media Entertainment's Christian Tureaud, and Prelude's Mark Koch, Daniel de Liege & David Salzberg will produce.
    There's more on Chilton's biography, including reviews etc. at Amazon.com which also has the useful 'look inside' option. There are also a couple of write-ups at the Review of Biblical Literature website. I've not read the book, but I note a few things from the reviews. Firstly, the book apparently prioritises Acts over the epistles, which is an unusual move in this day and age. Simpler and more familiar for the faithful perhaps (arguably making it a good choice for a movie script perhaps).

    Secondly, if I have read the review correctly. Chilton's pre-conversion Saul struggles with guilt. If the film adopts this then it will find itself in opposition to EP Sanders and those scholars from the 'new perspective' on Paul.

    On the positive side both reviewers praise his writing style, and that, at least, means that the movie may be similarly well written. I certainly hope so. There's so little intersection between bible films and scholarship that when one comes along it's a source of real hope. Certainly we could do with more films that stress the Jewishness of Paul, Jesus and the early church. (Again one wonders if part of the motivation for the producers to buy this, rather than any other of the available scripts on Paul, was linked to the various debates about The Passion of the Christ).

    For what it's worth, I posted some brief comments on other film portrayals of Paul only last month.

    Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for the tip off.

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    Friday, February 03, 2006

    Ebert on Son of Man

    Roger Ebert has posted his thoughts on Son Man:
    The South African film renaissance continues with one of the most extraordinary and powerful films at Sundance, Son of Man. This is the story of Jesus, told in episodes from the New Testament, but set in present-day Africa. This is a Jesus (Andile Kosi) who says the same sorts of things he says in the Bible, is not 'updated' except in some of his terms of reference, and yet sends an unmistakable message: If Jesus were alive today, he would be singled out as a dangerous political leader, just as he was the first time around.

    The movie has relatively little spoken dialogue, but a great deal of music, that joyous full-throated South African music that combines great technical skill with great heart. Some of the best moments belong to a chorus, singing the praises of the lord. Others belong to an actress named Pauline Malefane, who plays Mary, and sings in celebration after being told she will be the mother of Jesus.

    She's told by an angel; the angels in the movie are small African boys with a few feathers attached here and there, looking on with concern. Jesus's disciplines include a few women along with the men this time, and they follow him through the townships of Cape Town as he preaches non-violence. Television news tells of occupying forces and uprisings, the modern version of the Roman concern with the Jews. Judas spies on Jesus with a video camera. The secret of the movie is that it doesn't strain to draw parallels with current world events because it doesn't have to.

    The movie was directed by Mark Dornford-May, but it is an improvisational collaboration of the Dimpho Di Kopane Theater company, which also created Dornford-May's great U-Carmen (2005), a version of Bizet's opera sung entirely in Khosa. That, too, starred Pauline Malefane, a trained opera singer.

    I find it very interesting that the film plays strongly on the political angle of Jesus. Scholars are increasingly emphasizing that the charge nailed to Jesus' cross was a political one, not a religious one (King of the Jews).


    Obviously pretty much every Jesus film for the next few years will be reacting in some way to The Passion of the Christ. That film removed any political aspect from Jesus's death altogether so it's nice to see the balance being restored.

    Tnere's some more info in this article Son of Man Stuns Sundance

    Matt

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    Los Angeles Times review of Son of Man

    Peter Chattaway has posted a review of Mark Dornford-May's Son of Man by John Horn of the Los Angeles Times. Since you can read it at either of those sites I won't post it in full, but I do like what he says here
    At every narrative turn, Dornford-May said he tried to keep focused on interpreting the Gospels as not only a spiritual story but also a political one, "with a message of humanity and equality. That is something I believe quite passionately in," said the director, who was raised Methodist and remains a regular churchgoer. "I find it amazing that the church spends any time debating whether gay people should be priests when people are dying of hunger and sick people can't get medicine."

    Dornford-May said he wrestled with how to depict the New Testament's miracles, which include Jesus raising the dead and healing the sick. The solution was to show them as recorded by a video camera carried by Judas, so that the audience is forced to look at Jesus through the eyes of his betrayer.
    That's a fascinating use of creative camera work to look at the story from a new perspective. It's also one of the advantages of setting the story in a modern context - you couldn't do that in a 1st century context!.

    Matt

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    Thursday, February 02, 2006

    Ramsees: Death of the First-born

    I caught about 20 minutes of this programme on channel 5 last night about Ramsees II which touched briefly on the story of Moses and the Israelite Exodus. I was actually watching it the house of a member of my church cell group, and as we were actually meant to be meeting there it got cut short after a while.

    Anyway, I did a bit of researching this morning. According to Kevin who works for Channel 5 it was a documentary that they "re-versioned" based on a documentary on the Discovery Channel, called "Ramsees:Wrath of God or Man?". There is a trailer for it here. There's also a number of interesting featurettes, which shed quite a bit of light on the film.

    In the brief segment I saw they touched on the existence of the Apiru and related them to the Hebrews (with perhaps a little too much conclusiveness for such a vague mention)and swiftly moved onto the heart of the show - the alleged discovery of the tomb of Ramsees.

    Two things stood out in particular. Firstly, there were a number of dramatised segments from the bible. Mostly rather standard - Ramsees and his dead son, the angel of the Lord creeping round Egypt à la The Ten Commandments (1956), but one was a "god shot" looking down on the Israelites as they passed through the walls of the Red Sea which was quite interesting. From the previews it appears that this is was quite a major feature of the film.

    Secondly, the documentary was pointing out how the Ramsees son is never given an age in Exodus - in fact he could have been an adult when he was killed. I must admit that is one thing I had never considered. I'm fairly confident that all the Moses films show him as a boy, and I know of no other dramatisation that deviate from this norm. Elsewhere I have argued that The Ten Commandments (1956) is now thelense through which the story of Moses is viewed, and I suspect that before that it was DeMille's earlier, if truncated, version of events, The Ten Commandments (1923) that held sway. This certainly seems to be the case here. It is hard to imagine an adult son of Ramsees. Furthermore the scenes noted above all seem to be strongly influenced by The Ten Commandments. The boy being laid down looks very similar to a scene from the film, I've already noted how the Angel of the Lord scene apes its predecessor, and even the impressive overhead shot, relies far more on DeMille's Red Sea as opposed to scripture's shallow sounding "reed sea".

    As for the documentary itself, it's point, going by the aforementioned trailer, seems to be that Ramsees's son had grown up to be an adult, and had been killed by human, rather than divine, means. I have heard some people speculate that the first born of Israel were killed in a sacrificial attempt to gain the favour of their gods (and I can only guess that this is where Egyptologist Kent Weeks' theory was headed), and it does have some plausibility. However, an awful lot rests on the pharaoh in question being Ramsees. This it appears is far from certain. The background info on Ramsees (200 wives, 150 children) was certainly interesting though.

    The film goes on to reconstruct both the faces of Ramsees and of the skull they think might be his first born child. There's perhaps some similarity, but there also appears to be some similarity to the face of Jesus re-constructed by the Son of God documentary a few years ago.

    There's a whole section on the show at the Discovery Channel website, and some interesting discussion here, as well as Gary Demarr's article about the documentary film

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    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    Bad Lieutenant

    Warning. Spoilers Throughout!
    In preparation for seeing Abel Ferrara's Mary, I thought I would watch some of his earlier films to get a feel for what he does. The obvious starting place was Bad Lieutenant, and I finally tracked down a reasonably priced copy, and sat down to watch it the other night. In case you are wondering why it was an obvious starting point, let me outline my prior knowledge of the film. I knew it was about a bad cop played by Harvey Kietel, and as a result it was not for the faint-hearted, and I knew there was a "cameo" by Jesus in it. I also knew it had been on the 2004 version of the Arts and Faith Top 100 - a list that I personally care for more than the 2005 version. Looking Closer's Jeffrey Overstreet wrote the following capsule review:
    Bad Lieutenant is a very serious film with an extremely powerful conclusion. The film is noteworthy because it is a well-known director wrestling with hard spiritual questions in a way that ultimately leads its character to Christ's feet. But it is so explicit and harsh, I wouldn'’t recommend it casually to anybody but the most devoted film student who is interested in the ways that Christian faith has been dealt with in film.

    Knowing what I did about the film meant that I pretty much knew that this would be a tale of redemption (FWIW my favourite theme), of the light shining in the darkness, and I wasn't much wrong. I think that knowing this, meant that when the pivotal scene - where The Lieutenant at the end of this tether has a vision of Jesus and crawls towards him on his hands and knees - didn't really move me as much as I'd hoped. What I did find powerful was the final "shot" of the film whereby the consequences of the Lieutenant's sins catch up with him. Too often redemption films equate to "get out of jail free" cards. I don't mind that per se, but it's nice to see a film that draws a line between forgiveness from God, and release form the consequences of your sins. Another film that does this well is Dead Man Walking. The crucial difference between that and this is the unexpectedness of it.

    One of the other things I liked about it was how Harvey Kietel's redemption doesn't automatically equate to his instant and complete transformation. He still can't resist the drugs of the criminals he is about to liberate, and hee still verbally abuses them even as he gerapples with this thing called forgiveness he has just discovered. It's interesting how these closing scenes mirror Jesus' understanding of forgiveness as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt 6:14-15). Our receiving forgiveness is dependant on us being prepared to forgive.

    In terms of the portrayal of Jesus in this film - it is primarily as a vessel for forgiveness, although the earlier shots of a crucified Jesus screaming as a nun is horrifically raped also portray him as someone who identifies with us in our times of suffering. I think the nun is also shown as a representation of Christ in the film. Certianly the way that the footage of her suffering is intercut with Jesus' passion (suffering) indicate there is meant to be some connection between the two. As the film unfolds, it is her determination to forgive and to "pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:44) that turns the Lieutenant's world on it's head, and gets under his skin. Ultimately, her acts cause him to be saved.

    It's difficult to know what to make of Ferrara though. The man started in the porn industry, but his recent films seem obsessed by Jesus, or at least with Catholicism. His films are dark, and marks the depths of depravity humanity sinks to, but he shows a light to shine in the darkness. Most films are on some level auto-biographical, but I wonder if this one is particularly so with Ferrara. Alternatively, is he just mocking the idea of forgiveness, such that the Lieutenant's untimely death acts simply to quash the very idea that forgiveness is permissable.

    Finally, although this is the first film I have seen by Ferrara, I can't help noticing certain similarities with Martin Scorsese. Obviously, both directors love New York, and Harvey Kietel. And both directors like exploring the underworld, and their Catholic roots. Perhaps it was simply those factors that drew me to make a comparison, and perhaps his other films are less reminiscient of Scorsese's Mean Streets. That said Ferrara's Mary could be his equivalent of The Last Temptation of Christ. I'll be interested to see.

    Matt

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