• 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.

    Tuesday, October 31, 2017

    Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter


    Inspired by a line from Thriller, and blazing the trail for a series of films such as Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Lee Demarbre's Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter (2001) is an ultra-low budget, B-movie style kung-fu horror comedy musical that gained a solid following and Honorable Mention for the Spirit of Slamdance award. Not one for the devout, the film is not so much a biblical adaptation as a pastiche of snippets from the gospels and translated into a modern day, and often bizarre context. It's undoubtedly blasphemous, but, as Ken Eisner put it, "too silly to offend" (2002). Given that the title tells you more or less all you need to know about the film, and that it's not exactly easy to track down, why go out of your way to see it if it sounds like it might offend you?

    Like many low budget cult hits, what might be considered as cheapness or sloppy craftwork are often a deliberate part of the joke. The bad dubbing references low-budget kung-fu movies of years gone by. The grainy 16mm footage also reminds audiences of films from their youth. The over the top story is a hat-tip to Hammer Horror. The bizarreness of the Santos character will probably be lost on those not familiar with the rather niche Mexican Wrestler fighting supernatural creatures sub-genre (real life masked wrestler Santo starred over 50 such films).

    Indeed there are plenty of other references for film fans to enjoy. The opening shot of road dividing lines flashing past the camera a reminder of Detour (1945) and slew of other nourish B-movies and road trip films. Demarbre cites Russ Meyer as the inspiration behind both the opening  narration and for his opening credit, and plainly Meyer's influence saturates the film, winking at every bold move. There's also an early 70s style dance scene feels like a deleted scene from the similarly named Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) and as if to ward off accusations of all his references being too  low-brow, there's even a musical reference to François Truffaut's 400 Blows (1959). And of course, one of the leading vampires is called Maxine Schreck, tipping the hat towards the original vampire movie - Nosferatu (1922)

    Whilst it's easy to imagine that the film very much began with the title, there are plenty of biblical references to complement the cinematic ones. Of course, the western vampire myth has it's roots in medieval Christianity, so mentions of drinking Jesus' blood almost come full circle. But the plot is, very, very loosely based around the Jesus story and a number of more direct elements remain. Jesus comes to earth and takes on the forces of evil. Along the way he meets a Judas figure and a Mary Magdalene figure (dressed in a shiny red jumpsuit), before facing defeat and death before a sort of resurrection at the climax. The scenes paralleling Mary anointing Jesus' feet, or the Good Samaritan, might not make for a helpful sermon illustration, but it does suggest the filmmakers have looked to incorporate elements of their source material beyond their leading character's name.

    Some have seen deeper connections. Laurel Zwissler has argued that the film "is essentially a Christian text that presents Christ as a hero much as Jesus' first-century followers did" (Beliefnet). Just as they presented Jesus as a "combination of...past heroes" such as Moses, David and Elijah, "Jesus is Bruce Lee, Shaft, and John Travolta all rolled into one" (Beliefnet). Whilst it's worth emphasising that there's more to the film than just its humour, this does perhaps go a little too far.

    Indeed, perhaps all of the above is an overly serious analysis of a film that is essentially very silly (in the best possible way). It's worth remembering that the other key driver of the plot is an evil doctor harvesting the skin of lesbians after he discovers grafting it onto vampires enables them to go out during the day. Not something that might easily be mistaken for striving for rigorous plausibility. Jesus is only able to save the people of Ottawa by teaming up with the masked Mexican wrestler and making a sign of the cross with a pair of windscreen wipers.

    What I can't quite decide is whether my personal disappointment that Jesus loses his stereotypical beard and long hair early in the film - and his first century-style dress shortly afterwards - is justified. It normalises Jesus and makes the rest of the film a further step away from the character's roots. Yet that somehow limits the film's potential to offend and reminds its audience not to take it too seriously. It's also an indication that the filmmakers are not content just to rely on the one gag.

    Indeed, writer Ian Driscoll's script contains a number of smart lines, many of which are easily missed first time around. Not all of them come off, and the second half of the movie drags a little. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter is an entertaing and, I suppose, unforgettable movie which may not greatly advance the light, but may at least enable to laugh a bit more at the darkness.

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    Beliefnet, "The Superhero for All Times" - undated and uncredited. - Available online at
    http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/2002/12/The-Superhero-For-All-Times.aspx

    Eisner, Ken (2002) "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter" in Variety 10 May 2002. Available online at
    http://variety.com/2002/film/reviews/jesus-christ-vampire-hunter-1200549749/

    von Hindman, Jared (2007), "I Bang Chicks in the Biblical Sense" at Head Injury Theatre. Available online at
    http://www.headinjurytheater.com/article77.htm

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    Friday, October 27, 2017

    La Sacra Bibbia/After Six Days (1920)


    With so many silent films lost to the ages, we should be grateful even for those where the remains are only part of what was originally projected. Nevertheless, it's hard not to be a little aggrieved that the print of La Sacra Bibbia (also known as just La Bibbia) that remains is a butchered version edited down for a re-issue. Indeed Sacra Bibbia was reissued at least twice, once in 1929 (as After Six Days) at the advent of the sound era, and once as late a 1946, for which a trailer was put together boasting of a $3 million and promising a cast of 10,000. The film's publicists also made much of the film being shot at the "exact locations" though the artefacts that are shown seem more like modern re-creations than the famous landmarks themselves.

    The version that remains is the 1929 version, edited down from the original and replacing the original (reference free) title cards with an earnest, but dull narration. According to Campbell and Pitts La Bibbia was released as a series of one reelers (1981: 12) and a copy of the original Joseph reel found it's way into the Joye collection and survives in the BFI's archive. The fragment (which I reviewed here) indicates some of what was lost. In addition to the intertitles, the re-issue also cropped the image, disastrously on more than a few occasions.

    What remains, however, is still a testament to what was the strength of the Italian silent epic. It was in Italy that the historical epic was born (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1908) and for all the attention given to Griffith's Birth of a Nation it was Cabiria that took the epic film to a whole new level. Indeed Griffith is reputed to have admitted Cabiria inspired him to make Intolerance what it was. La Bibbia retains much of the grandeur and spectacle of those films and in its own right contains numerous shots for which it deserves to be remembered.

    The film was directed by Armando Vay and Dr Piero Antonio Gariazzo. These days Gariazzo is better remembered for his commentary than his filmmaking. Bertilini only mentions him for his 1919 book Il Teatro Muto and his expression of a sentiment more widely connected with Alfred Hitchcock, "Whether they are skilled or not, film actors and actresses are like puppets" (Bertilini 2013: 259).

    Unsurprisingly the acting is not particularly memorable, but the compositions and imagery are what really stand out. The earliest scenes give a sense of creation and must have inspired Huston and Dino De Laurentiis' sort-of remake in 1966. Eve appears for the first time as smoke rises from Adam's sleeping body. The two frolic in the garden before embracing and taking a bit out of the forbidden fruit almost simultaneously. Moments later a furtive Cain, dominating the foreground and shooting furious looks directly at the camera forlornly pokes his sacrifice knowing it will fail whilst in the rear of the shot, almost off camera, his brother contentedly carries on.

    The brief scenes of the Ark and are unspectacular, but nevertheless the curve of the unfinished boat's hull and the struts that support it form a pleasing backdrop to shots of Noah and his family. Once the rains come in earnest, however, the images are far more disturbing. First Doré's "The Deluge" is evoked as people desperately climb on a rock hoping for salvation; then a wider shot of dead bodies piled up just above the rising waters as the rains continue to lash down; then finally a double exposure brings the camera closer to some of these, now ghostly, corpses floating away whilst the camera ploughs on in the opposite direction.

    However it's the Tower of Babel that lives longest in the memory. Here's it's depicted as a towering ziggurat, so colossal that it's top disappears into the clouds off the top of even an ultra-wide shot. It both reflects and emboldens Bruegel's famous painting (1563) and Doré's engraving (1865) amongst others, soaring above the seemingly minute people milling about below. Another highlight of these opening scenes is the spectacular destruction of Sodom, as the disastrous angelic visit to Lot ends in brimstone raining down on the city in a whirl of sparks and smoke.

    In contrast to these more eye-catching, spectacular scenes, the Joseph episode neatly emphasises Mrs Potiphar's obsession with him, notably the voyeuristic pleasure she finds secretly watching him. In a darkened foreground she watches him silently through a grill, briefly facing the camera as she bites her bottom lip in ecstasy. The theme of the audience watching someone watching someone else has been replayed numerous times since, another reminder of Hitchcock. When Pharaoh remembers his dreams a matte shot shows cows running above his head, before animated stalks of wheat appear. The section's use of low and high angles to reinforce the power dynamics of the courtroom scene.

    Moses' appearance on the big screen here was possibly the last time before DeMille made his indelible mark two or three years later. The differences are striking. For example rather than carrying around a mighty staff, Moses' rod is more reminiscent of a magic wand. Suddenly it feels like DeMille might have been compensating for something. Moses also has horns in the style of Michelangelo's statue (1513-1515) - just one of a number of ways in which the film's portrayal resembles the famous sculpture, something DeMille made much of when promoting his 1956 remake with Charlton Heston. That said, the crossing of the Red Sea - here portrayed using a rather clumsy matte shot - is not a patch on DeMille's first attempt just a few years later.

    Indeed after such a striking first half the second part of the film is less impressive. Once Moses has installed Joshua as his successor and wandered up the mountain to meet his maker, the remaining footage skips to the story of Solomon, perhaps suggesting that a scenario or two are missing here. Solomon shows his wisdom, threatens to cut a baby in half before being wowed by the Queen of Sheba in a scene full of over-the-top headdresses. Eventually he ends up a pagan orgy with her in scenes strongly reminiscent of the later Solomon and Sheba (1959).

    By then, the film, or this cut of it at least, has rather lost its way and like the Hebrew Bible itself, the narrative thread rather trails off. Nevertheless, there is so much to be appreciated in the rest of the film it is a shame that it has had so little attention,  neither amongst silent cinema fans, nor amongst academics. Even if what we have is only a pale reflection of what once was, La Sacra Bibbia deserves to be better remembered.

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    - Bertilini, Giogio (ed.) Silent Italian Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
    - Campbell, Richard C. and Pitts, Michael R. (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980, Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press.
    - Gariazzo, Piero Antonio (1919) Il Teatro Muto Turin: Lattes, cited in Pitassio, Francesco (2013) Famous Actors, Famous |Actresses: Notes on Acting Style in Italian Silent Films" cited in Bertilini, Giogio (ed.) Silent Italian Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.259

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    Friday, October 20, 2017

    Greaser's Palace (1972)


    I first heard about Greaser's Palace (dir:Robert Downey, 1972) around the turn of the century on one of of the first websites to cover the Bible on Film, Pete Aitken's Post-fun Adult Christianity. Sadly the site has been defunct for many years now, though you can find it on the Internet Archive, but it's mention of a "zoot-suited Jesus" has stayed with me, such that I've always hoped to be able to find it, but never quite managed it.

    The film is very much a product of its time. It was released in 1972, three years after Buñuel's The Milky Way (1969), a year after Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and the same year as The Ruling Class (1972). The following year would see the release of both Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell and all six movies have the same off-kilter feel about them. There was, perhaps, a temporary artistic freedom in the air that allowed for off-beat, irreverent and potentially offensive portrayals of Jesus as filmmakers toyed with Jesus' cultural capital.

    It was a blip. By the mid to late 1980s the church, most notably the religious right in America had got it's act together and was no longer prepared to let artists exercise their freedom of speech unchallenged. The protests over Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ are notorious.

    Greaser's Palace has never quite been popular enough to gain cult status, but it's that kind of film. Jesse (Allan Arbus) parachutes down on the outskirts of an obscure western town wearing a zoot-suit and pink fedora. The town is dominated by the fearsome owner of the town's bar, Greaser's Palace, who on spotting Jesse's arrival marches out in a celebrated long reverse tracking shot that keeps going just as yo expect it's going to end. It's the kind of technical pun that appeals to directors and film critics. Indeed you can hear Paul Thomas Anderson discussing it here.

    Jesse, however, isn't here to save the world, but to meet with his agent. Sure he'll raise Greaser's Son from the dead every time his father kills him, and somehow he even ends up on a cross, but this is not the driven man of social action of so many other films that modernise Jesus. He's on his way to Jerusalem "to be an actor, singer, dancer". Faced with a body of water he not only walks on it, but performs back flips, before disappearing from sight below the water and reappearing on dry land. Even Greaser is impressed by that one. His daughter is less impressed: Jesse is starting to steal her limelight.

    Despite it's intriguing premise, then, it doesn't have a great deal to say (not that it necessarily has to). It's the most overtly comic of the films listed above, and it draws on various types of humour; if the site of the Holy Ghost wearing a top hat and dressed in a white sheet doesn't amuse you, maybe the slapstick of Jesse and Greaser's son trying, and failing, to climb on a donkey will. The occasional moments of 1970s era homophobia and racism probably won't.

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    Tuesday, October 17, 2017

    Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (Man Facing South-East, 1986)


    Running throughout Eliseo Subiela's Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (Man Facing South-East, 1986) is a single question: is Rantes (Hugo Soto) suffering from delusion, or is he, as he believes, an extra-terrestrial? The film's locations, muted tones and acting styles makes its world feel enough like our world to make this seem unlikely, but then a handful of scenes show him apparently performing explainable acts, a dash of telekinesis here, a bit of mind-control there. Plus the inmates in his psychiatric hospital are starting to form long queues, just to receive his touch.

    Whilst these two possibilities play out, a third concept arises primarily from Dr Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), the specialist to whom Rantes has been assigned, namely the parallels between Rantes and Jesus. Denis, who for most of the film is unaware of Rantes's miraculous powers, nevertheless ponders the ways in which he is like Christ and whether he himself is destined to become Rantes's Pontius Pilate.

    The Christ-figure element is emphasised in many ways throughout the film from early shots of Rantes with a prominent crucifix in the background, to the unexplained acts, to the growing following and the arrival, halfway through, of a Magdalene-esque character, Beatriz Dick. Beatriz's surname is an apparent reference to author Philip K Dick who work often involve scenarios "where nothing is quite what it seems" (Cornejo, 2015: 72). Dick (Inés Vernengo) initially describes herself as an evangelist, whilst Rantes calls her her a saint.

    In a pivotal moment in the film Rantes delivers a Sermon on the Mount/Plain style speech during a discussion with Denis:
    If someone suffers, I console him. He needs help? I give it. So why do you think I'm mad? Someone looks at me, I respond. If someone talks, I listen. You've all gone slowly crazy not recognizing these responses. By simply ignoring them. If someone's dying, you let him die. Someone asks for help you look away. Someone's hungry you are wasteful. Someone's dying of sorrow, you lock him up so you don't see. A person who systematically behaves like that who is blind to the victims may dress well, pay his taxes, go to Mass, but you can't deny he's sick. Your world is terrifying. Why don't you look at real madness for a change? Stop persecuting sad people, meek people, those who don't want to buy, or can't buy, all that crap you'd so gladly sell me.
    The film's most enjoyable scene occurs towards the end when Denis, Rantes and Dick attend a public, outdoor, concert and Rantes gets the crowd dancing, before supplanting the conductor and leading the orchestra himself. Footage of this is intercut with that of a joyous riot which breaks out inside the hospital at the same time. The inmates dance and skip round the hospital as if in earshot of the music, which plays on whilst the camera flits between the concert and the inmates. It parallels the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and similarly leads to the inevitable clash with the authorities. From then on Denis is told to administer DRUGS to Rantes and to use electrocution if he becomes catatonic. Rantes's final words are "Doctor why have you forsaken me?"

    Many of these elements will feel very familiar to fans of Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), but in fact the Christ-figure theme is not the film's primary concern. Indeed it's no coincidence that Subiela's film ends on a darker note. Rantes dies; none of his fellow inmates, or even Dr Denis himself discover self-actualisation. Denis finds a photo of Rantes and Dick (who he decides must be Rantes's sister) from fifteen years before with a third person torn off (though their shadow is still visible. In his satisfaction of solving the puzzle - at least in his own eyes - Denis manages to assuage, to some degree, the unease he felt when challenged by Rantes earlier in the film, and his own guilt at Rantes's death.

    This conclusion is one of a number of things about the film that could easily be seen as unsatisfactory. Why is Denis not more troubled by the death of a patient he has clearly formed a bond with? More to the point why when he spots the pattern of the alcoholic father estranged from his children, is he unable to recognise how it applies to his own life? Why does the film seem to indicate that Rantes has special powers, but then conclude that he doesn't? If Rantes is unable to "feel" the emotional impact of the music as he claims, why is he so clearly moved by it in the concert scene? And what about all of the other strange touches in the film: the couple with sacks over their heads, kissing; the way Dick changes her shoes when leaving the hospital; the open windows and doors; the blue liquid that Dick emits.

    These seeming inconsistencies are not the result of careless filmmaking, but more as a way to draw attention to the film's deeper meanings. Set just after the end of the Argentinian military dictatorship (1976-83), the film grapples with how seemingly rational people could overlook the horrors of the regime. The film treats "Argentina's most recent dictatorship...allegorically with reference to repression in a psychiatric institution" (Page, 2009; 182). At the same time, practices at the hospital "become symbolic of the torture and repression carried out in clandestine military during the 1970s" (Page, 2009: 18). As Kantaris explains, "the political allegory, the religious fable, and the theme of disavowal, are carefully woven into a set of subliminal ciphers which the film uses to convey messages about its own subtexts" (1998).

    Some of these "ciphers" are more obvious than others. The couple kissing despite the sacks over their heads both references René Magritte's painting Les Amants (1928) as well as the hoods used by military's torturers to conceal their identities (Reati, 1989: 32). The open windows and doors also touch on the work of Magritte and other surrealists as a sign of transition and difference between dualities such as reason / madness and rational / irrational (Kantaris). Others though, such as Dick's shoes, remain obscure despite the emphasis the film places on them as a bearer of deeper meaning significance.

    However, the central question - whether Rantes is an alien or not - remains highly ambiguous. The miracles are open to interpretation, shaped both by the audience's pre-conceptions and the generic conventions at play. Something is happening in the café scene, which, in many genres, would certainly be seen as miraculous acts. It's notable that the film was released in 1986, just four years after E.T. and it's interesting to note the similarities and differences between the two films. In both films the titular character believes himself to be an alien, but only in Spielberg's film is it clear he is. Both characters perform miraculous signs and contain Christ-like characteristics. Both are hiding from authorities, whilst transforming the lives of the special, more innocent, lives around them. Both face a form of death though only Spielberg allows for a meaningful resurrection metaphor.

    Nevertheless, Spielberg's film is clearly from the fantastical/optimistic wing of the science-fiction genre where stories are clearly fictional and, as a result, miracles are part of the characteristics. In Subiela's film, other sci-fi conventions are largely absent. The setting feels like the real world and Dick's confession and the old photo that the camera closes in on (referencing another Christ-Figure film, Cool Hand Luke) suggests Rantes is deluded. The conventions of voice-over encourage the audience to trust the narrator, in this case Denis, and this is difficult to overcome despite his failings being clear.

    In other words there is no clear, single, agreed upon answer as to who is sane and rational and who is deluded and irrational. Indeed the possibility remains that Denis is sane even though his behaviour is more irrational than his patient's. There's more than a touch of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920) here in terms of the question of who is sane and who is suffering a delusion, but Subiela goes far further than Wiene did, with the film's denouement tipping the balance back towards ambiguity, rather than revelation. Yet rather than a more typical, vague, ambiguity, here there are two perspectives neither of which satisfactory fits the evidence. Some will see the telekinetic scenes as being clear evidence that Rantes is an alien and that Denis's conclusion is incorrect. Ohers will see the photo as affirming that which is seemingly true of the non-filmic world in which we live - that aliens do not live amongst us and that, therefore Rantes is deluded. To quote Denis' response to Rantes, summarising the dilemma he faces "If you're not loony, I'd have to accept that you're an alien. That would mean I'm the loony".

    There are three points here. Firstly that not only is the film's interpretation determined, by questions of genre, but also the film's genre is, to a certain extent, determined by it's interpretation. If the viewer interprets the miracles to be real and Rantes to be an extra-terrestrial then the film sits, albeit loosely within the science fiction genre. If not then it remains within the more realistic medical drama genre (though the film retains certain surreal elements).

    Secondly, that the willingness, or otherwise, to believe that Rantes performs miracles reflects, to a certain extent, the viewers willingness to accept miracles in real life. Those with a pre-disposition to accept otherworldly explanations may be more likely to accept the miracles at face value rather than interpret those scenes in other ways (e.g. coincidence or Rantes' imagination) and they have to provide an alternative explanation for the photo at the end of the film. But accepting either scenario comes down to interpreting scenes in a certain fashion. The Christ-figure elements here are a destabilising force, making the acceptance or rejection of a particular position more instinctive and entrenching positions more deeply.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it can be argued that attempts to find a coherent answer to what really happened is to miss Subiela's point. There is an irreconcilable conflict not only between Rantes explanation of what is happening and that of Dr Denis, but also between either explanation and a plausible "rational explanation of events within the film" (Kantaris). This points "towards a postmodern reading where nothing is what it seems" (Cornejo 2015: 74) which ultimately questions " the very possibility of conveying narrative and / or truth through either narrative or images" (Cornejo 2015: 76). For Kantaris, the unexplained ciphers or unresolvable tensions the film create a "splitting of belief...[an] almost a necessary condition of any accommodation to life under the military regime in Argentina"(1998). Furthermore "the whole psychiatric institution, can be seen as a displaced representation of that which the Argentine middle classes had attempted to disavow and repress, those extremes of sadistic violence carried out on individuals by the very machinery of state" (Kantaris, 1998).

    The film has gone on to become fairly influential, although in it's translation to US culture almost all of its allegorical power has been lost. K-PAX (2001) was more or less a Hollywood remake starring Kevin Spacey as the patient and Jeff Bridges as the doctor. Shorn of the post-military dictatorship context it lost much of its narrative power, and is reduced to 'heartwarming' moments and trite aphorisms. It also injected a greater moment of hope into its ending as scenes of Bridges reuniting with his son (a young Aaron Paul) are accompanied by Spacey's recalled voiceover offering his advice "to get it right this time around, because this time, is all you have".

    A further, and unlikely, incarnation of the film is in the long running comedy series The Big Bang Theory where a visually similar actor to Hombre's Hugo Soto plays an ultra-rational character Sheldon Cooper whose detachment even from his highly scientific group of friends allows him to commentate on the quirks and irrationalities of everyday life. Here both the Christ-figure element and the post-dictatorship theme have entirely disappeared.

    Nevertheless it says much about the power of Hombre mirando al sudeste that it has had an influence far beyond the borders of Argentina ans Subiela's typical audience. It's release on blu-ray late last year will hopefully enable the original to find a greater audience willing to engage with its unusual style and its deeper themes.

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    Cornejo, Yvonne Frances (2015) The embodiment of trauma in science fiction film: a case study of Argentina Leicester: University of Leicester. Available online -

    https://lra.le.ac.uk/bitstream/2381/32515/1/2014cornejoyfphd.pdf.pdf
    Kantaris, Geoffrey (1998) "The Repressed Signifier: the Cinema of Alejandro Agresti and Eliseo Subiela". In Francisco Domínguez, ed., Identity and Discursive Practice: Spain and Latin America (Bern: Peter Laing Publishers, 2000), pp.157-73.
    Available online - 

    http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/egk10/notes/repressedsignifier.html
    Page, Joanna (2009) Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentina Cinema (Durham & London: Duke University Press.
    Reati, Fernando. 'Argentine Political Violence and Artistic Representation in Films of the 1980s'. Latin American Literary Review 17.34 (July-December 1989): 24-39.

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    Friday, October 13, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 3


    This is part 3 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    Having ended the last episode with the Ascension, this one begins in Galilee with the rather odd sight of Peter watching his daughter from afar and explaining to John (and therefore us) that he's going to leave her with her grandmother so as not to endanger her by continuing to follow Jesus. It's a bit of a mixed bag as scenes go. On the one hand it's a cute reference both to the episode (Mark 1:29-31 and parallels) where Jesus heals Peter's Galilean mother-in-law and the fact that the gospel writers neglect to ever mention Peter's wife in her own right. The film's take on it - that Peter's wife has died - is not a bad theory.

    The downside of this scene however is the oddness of the way that Peter sneaks off and deserts his daughter, rather than explaining to her what he's doing. Apart from anything Pater's daughter is effectively a grown up and it seems to me, at least, that if you can't even be honest with your daughter - however noble your motives - then perhaps being the head of a soon-to-be major religion perhaps isn't the best role for you? Put it another way various films over the years have been taken to task in some quarters for portraying Peter or Paul in a bad light. Whilst the gospels are fairly honest about some of their mistakes this somehoe juts seems a little off. Fortunately though this isn't the last we see of Miss Cephas. Turns out the moment she discovers he's gone she comes and finds him and joins the disciples.

    Meanwhile the political scheming continues, this time with the introduction of Herod Antipas who is played by James Callis of Bridget Jones and Battle Star Galactica fame. Bible film swots will also recall Callis played Haman in 2006's One Night with the King. It's a piece of casting that does rather provide further evidence for Richard A. Lindsay that Antipas is typically portrayed as a "queer" character (p.105-112).

    The added political/Roman angle was one of the things that made the 1985 version of A.D. a success, but in this series it's less effective. This is partly due to the series' overblown style. The Romans' domination over the inhabitants of Judea has to be rammed home, hence in this episode the recorded events of Pentecost alone are deemed insufficiently dramatic, so they have to be combined with Pilate deciding to strong-arm his way into the temple, and with Jewish freedom fighters looking to attack as well. The conflict ends when, rather ludicrously a Roman soldier corners one of the attackers only to drop his guard and have his throat slit. Perhaps it's a metaphor for western forces in the Middle East or something, but it seems a little silly. That said, it's not even half as silly as the moment when one character starts to re-enact Life of Brian's "what have the Romans ever done for us scene" without even seeming to realise.

    As this series unfolds I'm starting to spot a pattern, in that each episode seems to contain one set-piece special effects moment. In episode 1 it was the earthquake accompanying Jesus' death. In episode 2 it was the ascension. Here it's the coming of the Holy Spirit. In all three cases it seems like these set pieces are meant to impress less committed viewers and keep them engaged, but their execution is poor. Rather than focusing on a single effective moment, the filmmakers stretch it out, spreading the budget too thinly and spending it in places where it's unnecessary. Here the moments inside the upper room are reasonably good, but the external shots of something akin to a comet circling the building before shooting down onto it are both unnecessary and poorly produced.

    What's also strange about it is the lack of effect that this incident has on the disciples. Typically such films portray this incident as the fearful disciples being given their courage, but of course that is, at best, an interpretation. Here however, the disciples are already confident enough and ready to go, they are only holding back in obedience because Jesus has told them they need to wait for the Holy Spirit. It's less about empowering and emboldening a scared and unequipped people, and more a showy way of granting them permission. I didn't like this at first, but it has made me reconsider the passage and challenge my preconceptions, and that is when biblical films are at their best.

    What is less commendable is the way that Peter's speech in front of the crowd is axed. Instead the events are mashed up with the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 and compressed into a single incident. This seems like a mistake, in Acts Peter's initial speech is such a pivotal moment. Speeches don't always make good telly, but even a greatly abbreviated version would have been better value than one of the ponderous fabricated speeches from Pilate, Caiaphas or Herod. Furthermore it means the thousands converting at Pentecost are doing so because they have witnessed a miracle, not because they are persuaded by an idea. Admittedly the miracle in Acts does bring in converts anyway, but I like the idea of people being persuaded by words and ideas, rather than power and spectacle.

    Next time, I'm going to have to try not to be so formulaic with my next review and avoid commenting  every, single, time, on the series tendency to push everything (particularly the violence) to the extreme.

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    Lindsay, Richard A., (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day  Denver, CO: Praeger

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    Sunday, October 08, 2017

    Noah (2014)


    In comparison to the majority of Bible movies, films about Noah have tended to take a more creative approach to telling the story. Michael Curtiz's 1929 Noah's Ark wraps the main story up in a "modern" day train crash story; thimbles and pipe cleaners lend a distinct charm to Disney's 1959 stop motion short of the same name; and the 1999 TV film, also of the same name, bizarrely combines the story of Noah with that of Lot.

    Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014), then, is hardly the first film about Noah to take a more creative approach. His is a mythic take, on a story which permeated so many different ancient cultures. Whilst this version is clearly an adaptation of the Jewish version of the story - and whilst Aronofsky himself is an atheist, his Jewish background has clearly been influential - the fantastical approach he has taken with his subject matter works to evoke a story that was known to far more people groups than simply the descendants of Jacob.

    Aronofsky particularly seems to revel in the fact that the Bible is often a strange book, and that few parts of it embody that 'oddness' more than Genesis. Indeed, I don't think you've really taken the Bible seriously until you acknowledge this inherent oddness. Take for example these words from the prologue to the Noah story:
    "When people began to multiply...and daughters were born to them, the 'sons of God' saw that they were fair and took wives for themselves... the 'sons of God' went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them..." (Gen 6:1-4)
    And that's one of the passages that Aronofsky leaves out. Add in those making covenants by dismembering animal carcasses and perambulating between them; Lot sleeping with both his daughters on consecutive nights, and Abraham being just moments away from sacrificially chopping up his only son and you have one weird book. Of course, Genesis is not necessarily endorsing all the  actions it describes. However, all too often people behave as if that the world of Genesis was broadly similar to out own, where people thought, felt and generally acted in a similar manner to the way in which we do today, despite the substantial evidence to the contrary, not least in our main source for these very stories.

    What I most appreciate about Aronofsky's Noah, therefore, is that he grasps, and indeed seems to relish, this strange 'otherness'. The film was over twenty years in the making after a project at school on the subject first caught his attention. The result is probably the first Bible film to feel like a cross between Lord of the Rings, Waterworld and Mad Max. As John Wilson put it, Noah isn't so much an adaptation, as a film that uses Genesis as a "mood board" (Front Row, 2014). The resulting film posses a strangely uneven style which many have disliked, but again this is what makes the film so bizarre and so interesting.

    On the surface of course, it's a biblical epic and some of the scenes that Aronofsky has created here are amongst the very best in the genre. Chief among them are the minutes leading up to the launch of the ark which, on the big screen at least, are spectacular. Noah rescues his son Ham from the descendants of Cain, escapes to the ark whilst the 'watchers' protect the ark from the on-rushing hordes, which culminates in their angelic souls spectacularly beaming back up to heaven just as the waters of the deep break forth lifting the ark up and away.  Clint Mansell's score, quite different from the kind of music he has typically produced for Aronofsky, ratchets up the tension magnificently. It maybe the 21st century, but it nevertheless feels very like the moment the Red Sea parts in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

    But this sequence also contains exactly those elements which feel so very far away from the kind of movie that DeMille and his ilk would ever have produced. The 'watchers' are angels (the Nephilim of Gen 4) who have quite literally fallen to earth, and found as they crashed to earth that the earth, or rather its rock, has clung to their bodies. The resulting 'rock monsters' look like the kind of special effect Ray Harryhausen might have created for Jason and the Argonauts (1963). When they die defending the ark their souls are sucked back up to heaven in great beams of light that feels like something from Independence Day.

    The movie's other breathtaking sequence also illustrates the diverse mix of styles that Aronofsky brings together. Shortly after the launch of the ark, Noah retells his family the story of creation accompanied by a time-lapse-styled montage portraying an evolutionary act of creation with a hint of stop-motion. The sequence ends at the Tree of Life (with all the echoes of Aronofsky's earlier The Fountain) with a glowing snakeskin wrapped around Noah's arm like tefillin straps. Throw in the lunar-esque Icelandic landscape; a cameo from Anthony Hopkins that veers a little too closely to Billy Crystal's turn in The Princess Bride; and Noah's nightmares alternating between blood underfoot and water overhead, and it's not hard to see why many dislike the film's unevenness.

    The unevenness both unsettles viewers and hints at the divergent sources that lay behind the version that is cherished today. It's not that Aronofsky has pinpointed the exact cultural context of the original stories. He hasn't and clearly didn't intended to. But he has created a context where some of the questions that the text raises, and that the story's characters would have had to face, can be explored. In particular the time spent on the ark during the flood, so often skipped over in other versions of the story, turns into a dark psychological drama, as Noah feels inescapably drawn to take The Creator's work to its grimly 'logical' conclusion by ending even his own family line.

    It's a film, then, that takes seriously the nature of the destruction that "The Creator" (as God is called in this version) unleashes during this story - a point that few critics seemed to appreciated. Ironically, many Christians railed against the film's portrayal of Noah as a homicidal maniac, overlooking the fact that of course the number of deaths at Noah's hands are only a fraction of those who drown in the flood sent by God. To assess this film's Noah as a psychopath is something of a miscalculation. Noah doesn't want to kill his granddaughter - and in fact ultimately he cannot - he just believes that this is what his creator is calling him to do. Noah's readiness to follow even the most horrific of his creator's commands brings him into similar territory as Abraham, sacrificing his offspring because he is convinced God wills it.

    As Peter Chattaway has observed, Aronofsky's other films "often dwell on the idea that purity or perfection is impossible, and that the pursuit of these things is self-destructive." (Chattaway 2014). It's not hard to see how the filmmakers unpack similar themes in Noah. Noah's environmentalist perfectionism is such that he rebukes his child for picking a flower; his destructive obsession drives him to almost kill his grandchild. On a physical level the floodwaters have destroyed the world, but there is also huge destruction on an emotional level. Little wonder that the film's epilogue opens with Noah, alone, getting drunk on the beach. Years before this film was released Aronofsky described this as an indication of Noah's "survivor's guilt" (Aronofsky, 2007), but Noah is also continuing to agonise over the questions which dominated the film's third act. Was he was right or wrong to spare Ila's child? Has his 'compassion' ultimately doomed the world to be destroyed by humans all over again? How can he face his family given how close he came to committing such an horrific act? It's no coincidence that Aronofsky framing of Crowe's Noah repeatedly echoes the famous final shot of The Searchers (1956).

    It's here that his daughter-in-law Ila's words help rehabilitate Noah, in the eyes of his family, to himself, and also, to some extent, to the viewer:
    He chose you for a reason, Noah. He showed you the wickedness of man and knew you would not look away. And you saw goodness too. The choice was put in your hands because he put it there. He asked you to decide if we were worth saving. And you chose mercy. You chose love. He has given us a second chance. Be a father, be a grandfather. Help us to do better this time. Help us start again."
    On all three fronts the rehabilitation is only partly successful, such trauma is not easily overcome, but it does manage to leave the film on a positive note, whilst also challenging its audience to re-examine its own environmental credentials. This, then, is a more hopeful ending than Aronofsky's later mother! which suggests that this film's second chance, if it even is only a second chance, is doomed to fail and will ultimately lead The Creator to endlessly destroy and misguidedly restart the world again. Here though, the despair is not yet so overwhelming. Noah may have begun amidst environmental apocalypse (with an implied modern parallel), but it ends still offering us a fig leaf of hope, urging us to act before its too late.

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    Aronofsky, Darren (2007). "Just Say Noah" Interviewed by Ryan Gibley for The Guardian, 27 April. Available online - https://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/apr/27/1

    Chattaway, Peter T., (2014) "Flood Theology" in Books and Culture Vol 20 No.3 (May/June 2014)
    Available online - http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2014/mayjun/flood-theology.html?paging=off

    Front Row (2014) BBC Radio 4, 4 April. Available online - https://soundcloud.com/front-row-weekly/fr-kate-winslet-richard-ayoade

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    Thursday, October 05, 2017

    Paul, Apostle of Christ set for 2018 release.


    Regular readers may have noticed that I've been trying of late to keep to a more consistent posting pattern. The downside of this is that there are times when it's been tempting to bang out a number of posts in quick succession, but I've held back, and this is one post that has rather suffered.

    Anyway, just in case hasn't already read about this at FilmChat, Affirm Films, who are the faith-based branch of Sony have announced that they are currently filming a new movie about the apostle Paul due for release next year. Affirm are also currently putting the finishing touches on The Star ahead of its 10th November release later in the year.

    Paul, Apostle of Christ will star James Faulkner in the leading role, supported by Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel as Luke,  A.D. The Bible Continues' Joanna Whalley as Priscilla, and The Fall's John Lynch as Aquilla. Lynch also starred as Gabriel in the BBC's The Passion (2010). Interestingly the IMDb also lists Yorgos Karamihos as playing Saul of Tarsus, suggesting there might be a bit of a jump between Paul's ministry to the Jews and his ministry to the Gentiles. Here's the plot summary:
    Paul, who goes from the most infamous persecutor of Christians to Christ’s most influential apostle, spends his last days awaiting execution by Emperor Nero in Rome. Paul is under the watchful eye of Mauritius, Mamertine Prison’s ambitious prefect, who seeks to understand how this broken old man can pose such a threat. As Paul’s days grow shorter, he feverishly works from prison to further the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and embolden his followers to stand strong in their faith against Roman persecution far greater than has ever been seen.
    From the sound of the plot summary it seems to me like the earlier scenes will be shot in flashback from Paul's final days in prison, but perhaps I'm reading in too much.That would certainly correspond with writer/director Andrew Hyatt last film Full of Grace (2015) which covered the final days of Jesus's mother Mary.

    As Peter points out this will be something of a first. Whilst Paul has appeared on the big screen many time before, not least in epics such as Quo Vadis (1951) and early silent films about him, I think this is probably the first time he's been the star of a feature length film that has gained a significant cinematic release.And of course this film was announced just days before the death of one of the more famous actors to portray him, Harry Dean Stanton (in 1988's Last Temptation of Christ).

    So I'll be keeping an eye on this one. Hopefully it will get a UK release.

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