• 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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    Tuesday, March 31, 2015

    The Ark (2015)


    I must admit I'm a big fan of Darren Aronofsky's Noah from 2014. It's a huge, dark exploration of- some of the textual and philosophical issues surrounding the flood story written in bold, dramatic tones. Tony Jordan's The Ark is not those things, indeed it's a very different take on the story, but none the worse for that. Out go the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, in come the warm dry Moroccan dessert. Out goes the grunting, moody grit of Russell Crowe and in comes the quirky warmth of David Threlfall, no less determined, but very much in his own fashion. Out goes the primitive, mythical operatic style of Aronofsky's film and in it's place we find an approach that probably owes more to soap opera than anything.

    Both films have been criticised for their dialogue: Crowe et al. talk in that way which is so familiar from epic films - a sort of halfway between Yoda and Frankenstein’s monster; Threlfall and family for lacking gravitas. The truth is that we don’t know how they spoke. And whilst the importance and severity of the situation Noah foresaw is enough to make anyone strip their sentences down to the bare minimum, it’s also likely that aspects of Noah’s normal family life remained as well, like catching up with cousins at a wake.

    So Jordan’s comes into it’s own. To the cynics, of course, it’s the easiest of targets. The Bible film genre is easier than most to poke fun at, purely for it’s own existence; but somehow the story of Noah is the largest and slowest moving fish in a particularly well-crammed barrel. But if you want to use film to explore the stories of the Bible, and to think about what they might have to say about our relationship to the word today then using a modern soap-operaesque approach is as legitimate as any. INdeed the nature of myth through the ages has been taking an old story and reworking it in a way that your new audience relates to.

    Interestingly The Ark starts with a shot taken under water. In a film about a flood there’s barely a drop of the stuff on display. The Ark is surely the driest Noah film on record. Not only is it set in arid desert, but the rains don’t start until the last ten minutes and even then the time spent afloat is over before it’s really started. Even the post-flood scenes take place against a sandy, dry background, asif the Ark’s inhabitants had wanted to hang on, just in case it was going to start up again.

    So the film’s wettest scene is actually of Noah’s sons, and then the patriarch himself, enjoying a bonding moment in a local oasis. It’s an indication of the way the relationships will continue throughout the film. Noah is a friendly, loved and admired father. Even when his sons think he may have lost his mind they can’t quite entirely rule out the possibility that he might be right. Time and again they honour him for the way he has brought them up.

    Whilst the film overall relies rather more on the Bible that on the Qur'an, in one important aspect it follows the Islamic version of the story - Noah has four sons rather than the more familiar three. From the moment he appears on screen you get the same feeling you have for the fate of anyone who beams down from the Starship Enterprise wearing Any sense of foreboding that presents the viewer with is only heightened by the realisation that the fourth son, Kenan, is played by the excellent Nico Mirallegro.

    Perhaps it's just because I last saw him in his excellent performance in 2014's Common, but the moment he appeared on screen as Noah's fourth son, I got the same feeling I used to get whenever an unknown actor in a red jumper beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Somehow someone's not going to be on board at the end of the film. Either way Mirallegro is reprising the role of a young man whose punishment seems somewhat out of proportion to his “crimes”.

    But Mirallegro’s Kenan, with the link to the land of Canaan which only becomes explicit in the final scene, is where, I suspect, Jordan’s wrestles most earnestly with his subject matter. Early in the film the distinctions are more black or white (perhaps a little too literally). One the one hand is Noah a believer in God. On the other the city dwellers who worship not, as would have been most likely, an assortment of local and/or ancestral deities but instead are pre-historic new atheists. It’s a little cringeworthy, but Kenan adopts Noah’s arguments against atheism, even at one point, parrotting his argument that "[o]nly an idiot would say there is no god because to say that you'd need to know everything, and only an idiot would think they do".

    Kenan gains far more screen time than Ham, Shem and Japheth. Just as Aronofsky used the fictional Ila to pose his questions, so Jordan employs Kenan for the same purpose. When Kenan fatally writes off the deluge as just another storm, choosing to stay with his girlfriend instead you can sense Jordan’s dilemma. If atheism is idiotic, a more traditional take on the Noah story is no less troubling. The sin which has ruined the world need only be “wanting” rather than being “content”. Kenan might be sleeping with his girlfriend and enjoying the odd puff of a pipe, but his behaviour hardly seems to merit his extinction.

    Certainly, the strain of atheism Noah and his family encounters is rather anachronistic. Its followers pour scorn on the idea of an old man in the sky with a white beard millennia before the greeks would first picture Zeus in such a fashion. They argue that they “have science” and that the "universe created itself". Surely they argue if the world is designed then "Who designed the designer?"

    Elsewhere however these kind of modern-sounding objections feel much more realistic, most notably when first Noah’s wife and then his sons respond to his plan to escape the world’s watery demise. “Won't they all eat each other?” asks Mrs Noah (played wonderfully by Joanne Whalley). “Can’t we just escape to higher ground?” suggests one of his sons.

    It’s these interactions which feel the most natural and are, for me, the the strongest part of the film, whereas the earlier scenes had felt a little too stereotypical. Noah and his godly family are white: the non-white characters are the sinners who will drown. The women either deny sex to their husbands, or are too frigid (and I would estimate that the length of time discussing sex is far greater than the time The Noahs ultimately spend afloat).

    Thankfully this seems to change once a “messenger” appears from God and instructs Noah to expand his farming-come-boat-building business (making a line drawing in the sand as if Noah was unsure what a boat looked like). It becomes a spot Noah returns to as the story progresses, the rains seem delayed and even his faith starts to waiver. The messenger however does not return until the very end of the film, and even then only to pose the question "Will Man learn his lesson?”

    Gradually, though, people start to come around. First Noah’s wife, then his sons and daughters in law. Whilst Noah’s preaching in the city appeared, initially, not to have gained any new converts to his cause, later on a handful of followers turn up. And then, at last, the animals appear, and, just as Noah’s wife had predicted, the family end up having to “make a dash for it when it starts raining."

    The animals appearance is one of the films boldest and best choices and allows the films focus to remain on the human drama at the heart of the story. It also allows it to capture a strange kind of fear as the doors to the ark close and suddenly a bunch of strangers realise they are trapped in a confined space with one another and bunch of equally frightened animals.

    If the ending is rather twee, it’s perhaps because Jordan didn’t want to include it at all. Like the writer of the book of Hebrews Jordan’s interest is more in Noah as a man of faith than the more Old Testament ideas of origins and covenant. Purportedly the first draft of the script ended with very first drop of rain. Whilst that might have felt a little under-done, it’s testimony to Jordan’s writing skills that the happy ending and the token appearance of the rainbow feels a little surplus to requirements.

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    Sunday, March 29, 2015

    Dawn of Victory (1966)

    Dawn of Victory (1966) is one of the four titles that form part of the Gospel Film Archive's 2015 Easter Collection. It's later than many of the films released by the GFA and whilst it still clearly made on a limited budget, it's a more accomplished production than many similar-level projects from the 40s and 50s.

    This is apparent right from the off with a striking, 60s title sequence not dissimilar to many Hollywood productions of the time. Unusually the film opts to start with Jesus already on the road to Golgotha struggling under the weight of a full cross. But as Simon of Cyrene is pressed into action the camera focusses instead on Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who decide to retreat from the crowds to study what light Isaiah 53 may have to shed on the events they are witnessing. At this stage neither of the two is a follower of Jesus, but they are both intrigued by Jesus and trying to fit all that they have seen into their world-view.

    The publicity for this film really emphasises this part of the film, but after less than 9 minutes it's more or less finished, as the camera arrives at Golgotha to witness the prosecution. Whilst the first shot (above) is a little out of focussed it's very nicely composed. It's noticeable as well that Jesus and the two men crucified with him are only a little higher than the crowd witnesses Jesus' execution. This is actually more accurate than the majority of films about Jesus: those being crucified tended to be more or less at eye level with those witnessing the crucifixion, rather than high above them as per the majority of Jesus film.

    It's also one of the few films about Jesus to include all 7 of the phrases the gospels record Jesus as saying from the cross. Having witnessed Jesus' death we also get the traditional proclamation from a Roman centurion, before the camera returns to Nicodemus and Joseph who are now convinced that Jesus is who he (apparently) claimed to be. "Only the Son of God could have died like that". That's one of those phrases that seems quite dated nowadays. These days it's more widely accepted that claiming to be the/s "son of God" was not as unique a claim and many took it for.

    Joseph heads off to arrange Jesus' burial and so the next scene takes us into Joseph's garden where a small battalion of soldiers are grumbling about having to keep an eye on Jesus' tomb. These scenes are rather mixed. There's a great shot of the soldiers around the campfire, but when the tomb is shaken open the special effects are really not very special. As the film's title suggests it is the scenes on Sunday morning which really take precedence here. The poorly executed moment when the tomb opens comes at the end of a fairly lengthy conversation between the Roman guards, again a moment that is not covered very often by films about Jesus.

    There then follows one of the most extensive selections of episodes from after Jesus' resurrection that I'm aware of - perhaps, even, on a par with The Miracle Maker. It makes a reasonable effort to harmonise the accounts from the four gospels, even if that means occasionally doing things like keeping the voice that first speaks to the women off camera so it's not clear whether they are being spoken to by one man (Mark), an angel (Matt) or two men (Luke), or if it's Jesus himself. It's also interesting that Peter claims to have met Jesus as well, a clear nod to 1 Cor 15:5. Finally Jesus ends, rather strangely, with the words from John 14:27.

    So for various reasons this is an interesting addition to the canon and certainly not the dry proof-texting I was inspecting from the film's description. Sadly the producers, Concordia Films, didn't make many more film, but the actor who played Jesus - Jason Evers - went on to star in a string of classic 80s TV programmes including The A-Team, Dukes of Hazard, CHiPS, Knight Rider and Murder She Wrote. Essentially, if it was popular with boys my age early on Saturday evening, it appears that Evers must have been in it at some point.

    I'll be reviewing the other films on this disc over the next few weeks. (Please note I was sent a copy of the disc to review).

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    Saturday, March 28, 2015

    Mysteries of the Bible: Jesus

    Last night saw what appears to be Channel 5's Easter religious offering the first in an supposedly four-part series called Mysteries of the Bible. I say "supposedly" because despite it being claimed in numerous places that this was the first episode of four, I've not managed to find anywhere that gives any details away about the final three instalments.

    The plot thickens still further as it turns out that this episode was actually a re-edited version of a 2014 National Geographic documentary The Jesus Mysteries (currently available on YouTube). Indeed the game is rather given away by the repeated use of the (above) title card from the National Geographic programme using the original title rather than Channel 5's re-brand.

    This version of the documentary is rather shorter as well. Whereas the original ran for 2 hours with adverts (or 90 minutes without) this cut barely makes it to the hour mark with the adverts, leaving just 45 minutes of actual content. Whereas the original version looked at seven mysteries, here there were only five (nativity, childhood, miracles, Mary and crucifixion, leaving out segments on St. Peter and the veil of St. Veronica).

    Overall it's a strange mix. The producers chose a good group of scholars for their talking heads - Bart Ehrman, Helen Bond, Mark Goodacre, Shimon Gibson, Larry Hurtado and Kate Cooper amongst several others and use them quite well. Apparently all the interviews were conducted at an SBL conference which reflects the kind of economising that is reflected in other parts of the film, although not always with such good results.

    For example, an awful lot of "green-screening" has been used to make this production and so much of it is so poorly executed that it's not only painfully obvious but rather tiresome by the end. Likewise there are several special effects, but the filmmakers' enthusiasm for them does not match the quality of their execution. Too many of the effects used are akin to the kind of filters you get in cheap video and photo editing packages that no-one uses except teenagers trying to impress their friends on Facebook.

    Content-wise, though, four fifths of it is pretty good. It's not exactly new or ground-breaking, but it's well put across and there were a few points with which I was unfamiliar. But that good work is rather let down by the section which examines the theory that Jesus, as a boy, travelled to Cornwall. It's such a bonkers theory that even those consultants who feature in this section are still fairly dismissive barring the one Cornwall local who has a corresponding book to sell. The others, presumably, will no doubt be cursing their tact. In the end even the narrator can't quite muster enough enthusiasm to give things any credibility. You wonder why the filmmakers included the segment at all and even more baffling is why Channel 5 left this part in at the expense of the sections on Peter and Veronica.

    In contrast the strongest section is the one on Jesus' miracles which gives particular emphasis to the social implications of Jesus' healings. The film stresses not only that Jesus' actions included those who had previously been excluded, but also that it was in breaking these taboos that got Jesus into such a lot of trouble.

    So whilst it is rather marred by the "Jesus tours England" section, it has some surprising merits as well and many of the audience will feel that, on balance, it was just about worth their time to watch it.

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    Wednesday, March 25, 2015

    Suchet on In The Footsteps Of St Peter


    Among the various Bible film related productions airing this Easter is this new BBC documentary David Suchet: In The Footsteps Of St Peter. The series is a follow up to Suchet’s 2012 documentary In the Footsteps of Saint Paul and follows a similar format travelling around in Galilee, Jerusalem and Rome, talking to experts and visiting key places in an attempt to get to know St. Peter better.

    For much of the first decade of this century most religious TV documentaries were vaguely controversial, most notably those presented by Robert Beckford on Channel 4. But the BBC seems to have changed tack of late and sought to provide the background to some of the stories of the Bible in a way that will, I would have though, primarily appeal to believers, even though it aims to be neutral and impartial.

    There are several new bits of information on the programme. The most important thing is the news that it will air over two mornings, with part one on Good Friday,3rd April at 9am, followed by part two on Easter Sunday Morning, 5th April at the same time. There are detailed descriptions of parts one and two on the BBC website.

    Also there is a 5 minute video promo with some short excerpts from the film as well as the transcript where Suchet makes some interesting points, as well as an accompanying article.

    One bit that did raise an eyebrow was the final paragraph where Suchet says:
    My travels around Galilee talking with people and visiting places associated with Peter such as Capernaum suggest he might have been more of an entrepreneur, running his own fishing business. His financial security made it possible for him to leave a wife, family and dependents to follow Jesus for some three years.
    That’s a convenient interpretation – Peter falling back on his wealth from his hard work – rather than a more traditional, and dare I say radical, one which sees Peter as literally giving up everything he had to follow Jesus, and I have to say I’m unconvinced. After all Peter’s business seems to have permanently taken a back seat at least at some point and whilst one could argue that gradually the income from being a disciple increased at around the time his savings ran out, it seems a little convenient. Presumably though the documentary will flesh this out a little.

    It’s also interesting to hear that there will be some discussion (and presumably footage) of the, so-called, Jesus boat. It may be almost 30 years since it was discovered but it’s a fascinating find and one I’d like to know more about.

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    Friday, March 20, 2015

    Trailer for the BBC's The Ark

    With Lent progressing rapidly the publicity for all the Bible films being released this Easter is hotting up. CNN's Finding Jesus has already shown a few episodes, more and more is emerging about Bill Reilly's Killing Jesus and likewise with A.D..

    The BBC tends to be a bit more tight lipped about these things until the very last minute, so it was interesting to see that they have finally released a bit more information in a press release detailing their religious programming for Easter. Amongst the programmes discussed is this bit on The Ark:
    The Ark - a one off drama for BBC One, starring David Threlfall (Noah), Joanne Whalley (Emmie), Nico Mirallegro (Kenan), Ashley Walters (God’s Angel), Emily Bevan (Salit), Michael Fox (Shem), Andrew Hawley (Japeth), Hannah Johm-Kamen (Nahlab) and Ian Smith (Ham). It is the retelling of the biblical story of Noah and The Ark. Noah, a farmer and family man, is instructed by an angel to build an ark in the middle of a desert in order to save both his family and the faithful from a devastating flood. A seemingly impossible task, especially when his sons refuse to believe him and help, Noah risks ridicule and humiliation from the degenerate townsfolk as well as his loving but exasperated family, in his quest to carry out his God-given task.

    The Ark is a timeless tale; a story of family and faith; about one man's belief and fixation with building the ark which will ultimately save his family and mankind. It is an obsession which leads to the fragmentation of his family, a test of their faith in their father and their father’s faith in God and everything he believes in.
    The show has been produced by Tony Jordan's Red Planet Productions who were also responsible for other BBC productions such as The Passion (2008) and The Nativity (2010), and their website also includes a trailer for the film.

    Elsewhere, TVWise reveals that the film's first episode will air on Monday March 30th at 8:30pm on BBC1. There's more of a feature piece at Christian Today with some quotes from Jordan himself.

    Incidentally, the BBC announcement also discusses David Suchet's follow up to his 2013 documentary on Paul. David Suchet: In The Footsteps of St Peter and also mentions a word for word dramatisation of John's Gospel, which, given previous partnerships will surely be the recent film by Big Book Media / The Lumo Project.

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    Wednesday, March 18, 2015

    Hostages; Jaël et Sisera (2013)

    Whilst we await the results of the Israeli election I've been enjoying a TV series about the potential demise of another Israeli Prime Minister in Bnei Aruba (Hostages, 2013).

    I mention it here because the lead character is Dr. Yael Danon, a surgeon who is held hostage the night before she is due to operate on the Israeli premier. The terrorists in question want her to see that he dies and whilst written like that it seems a little far-fetched it's actually pretty well done.

    The reason it up here is the biblical overtones of the heroine's name, Yael, a variation on Jael, the woman in Judges who is reputed to have killed the Hebrews' enemy Sisera by luring him into her tent and then driving a tent peg through his head. It's the kind of powerful imagery that makes the story hard to forget, even though it's rarely discussed, and even more rarely portrayed on film. For those unfamiliar with Jael's appearance in Judges 4 here it is:
    Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.”’ But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent-peg in his temple.
    Hostages isn't any kind of attempt to modernise the biblical narrative, but needless to say when the series' lead character is called Jael and starts waving sharp objects in the direction of the men who are "guests" in her home, it doesn't seem coincidental. Interestingly it's the kind of link that seemed a little too obvious to the show's original intended audience, but flies over the heads of the wider audience that the programme has found due to it's success.

    The only film about Jael I'm aware of is Henri Andréani's 1911 Jaël et Sisera (Pathé). I've not had the pleasure but it's one of the film's discussed by David Shepherd in "The Bible on Silent Film", from where I've taken the image below.

    According to Shepherd the film plays a little fast and loose with the biblical account. Jael is married to Sisera's friend Heber the Kenite who not only slays the Canaanite general, but also releases a group of Israelites from their imprisonment in the enemy camp. Shepherd concludes:
    "While Israelite femme fatales such as Judith and Jael had already enjoyed a long history of glorification and vilification prior to their emergence on the silent screen, Andréani's choice of Jael and treatment of her can hardly be a coincidence given the prominence enjoyed by feminine heroines, often armed and dangerous, within early sensational melodrama."
    Shepherd also notes that the film omits Deborah who is the character that the Bible chooses to focus on.

    The film is still in existence; there's a copy in the BFI archive for starters, although sadly they appear to have inexplicably ditched their excellent Film and TV database and replaced it with a rather dumbed down their archive website. Sadly the new version no longer offer plot summaries for the film but you can read a little more on their Collections Search page. Sadly, it's also not covered by Campbell and Pitts. Thankfully there is a little summary (and the original poster) courtesy of the Foundation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé:
    The early scenes, tumultuous, violent and colourful in a wild and grandiose setting, depict the bloody struggle that divided the barbarian camp of Sisera from Barak, leader of the Israelites. In the first tableaux, we are at Sisera's camp where Jael, wife of Heber, delivers her fellow Jewish prisoners. They flee, revealing the location of Sisera's camp and Barak decides to march against his enemy. After a fight, Sisera's army is thrown into the Kishon water torrent. Only Sisera, escapes the massacre, fleeing his conqueror/enemy. Cornered, exhausted, he begs for asylum under the tent of Jael, who gives him hospitality. But while the fugitive, overcome by fatigue, falls asleep deeply, Jael, takes advantage of his sleep and kills him, thus delivering the Israelites from their persecutor. God is acclaimed by his people as a liberator.

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    Saturday, March 14, 2015

    No Greater Power (1942)


    Many years ago I won a copy of the cine projector release of this film and have been waiting for our family projector to get into a fit state to be able to watch it. Having finally got around to seeing it I’ve now found out that the Gospel Films Archive have released it on DVD (along with I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the 1949 film Ambassador for Christ from Cathedral Films’ “Life of Paul series) so it’s available to view for considerably less hassle than I had to go through.

    The film itself dates from 1942 which puts it in that early talkie period when very few companies were making Jesus films were made. One of the major exceptions was Cathedral films who also made other early, sound-era, Jesus films such as The Great Commandment (made in 1939 but not released until Fox did so in 1942) and Child of Bethlehem (1940). Like those films No Greater Power was produced by Rev. James K. Friedrich who also co-wrote it with Robert Edmunds. Friedrich’s regular collaborator John T. Coyle directed, a partnership that would produce a vast body of Bible films in the years to follow.

    The film starts, somewhat unusually, with a man and woman arriving in what appears to be a rural village. As she is pregnant and riding a donkey it’s natural to think of the Nativity and to wonder how these images will fit with what we have already been told is the story of Zacchaeus, particularly as the couple are searching for somewhere to stay the night.

    Further unexpected twists are to come: We meet Zacchaeus, but he’s only a down-on-his-luck potter; the couple are not married but brother and sister; and it emerges that the man of the couple, rather than Zacchaeus who is the tax collector.

    Initially Zacchaeus turns the couple away. He already has some financial difficulties and offering hospitality to a tax collector is bad for business such is the feeling of hatred and the fear of spiritual contamination from his fellow townspeople. But then there’s a chance encounter with a pernickety Jewish scribe who forces him to destroy one of his pots when it momentarily comes into contact with a dead insect. Zacchaeus is infuriated and decides to reject the strictures of the Jewish law and offer hospitality, at a considerable price, to the tax collector and his wife.

    As the evening passes, the two men chat and the tax collector persuades Zacchaeus of the benefits of that particular profession, namely that there is money and power to be gained. When his guests leave, Zacchaeus enlists and a quick montage shows us him accruing considerable wealth.

    It’s clear though that his perceived rejection by his fellow townspeople, and his subsequent power and wealth have changed him such that whereas initially he was the kind of man who might be compassionate towards strangers in town, he is now motivated almost solely by profit. So it is that we arrive at the story from Luke’s Gospel.

    Later on Cathedral Films’ offerings tended to adopt a more straightforward, point and shoot methodology, perhaps as the pressures of covering so much material in such a short period of time took precedence over more artistic concerns. Here however there are several notable shots and it’s not inconceivable that these were due, in part, to cinematographer John Alton who went on to greater things in Elmer Gantry and Robert Siodmak’s classic Film Noir The Killers (1946).

    Perhaps it’s just the era, or the black and white photography, but it’s the Noir film that seems more closely related to Alton’s work here, particularly the interiors of Zacchaeus’ house, which is shot from a variety of high and low angles. There’s also interesting use of light, not least the film’s most discussed shot (below), where backlighting forms a halo effect around Jesus’ head.

    Significantly our first shot of Jesus is taken from over Zacchaeus’ shoulder (below), not quite a point-of-view shot, but certainly suggestive of such. Jesus is a small figure in the background, distant, remote and cut off from the film’s eponymous anti-hero. The audience is then privileged with closer shots of Jesus as we see him interact with some of the townspeople. There are blessings of children, and perhaps the suggestion of a healing.

    Here as well we’re given a brief sample of Jesus’ teaching, all of which comes from the Gospel of Matthew rather than Luke. In the main it’s Matthew 5:43-48 (shown as intertitles in the cine release version), but the final line is Matt 5:20: "...except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven."

    It's not entirely clear why the filmmakers decided that, of all the words of Jesus available to them, it was these that should be chosen here. The "love your enemies" passage from Matt 5:43-48 is conceivably the kind of thing that Jesus might have thought Zacchaeus's neighbours needed to hear, but did they think their audience needed to hear it as well? Given that this film was released the year after the United States entered the Second World War, it's hard not to think of that conflict in the background. And what of the use of Matt 5:20? To end on this passage - and to graft it onto a passage where it doesn't belong, in a story that neither passage belongs in suggests some kind of message intended for the audience.

    It's not long however, Zacchaeus gets to meet Jesus. From a theological angle it’s perhaps significant that this is very much a film about Jesus finding the sinner and not the other way round. Indeed the film brings out some of the more available metaphors in the story which are easily overlooked solely by reading it. Zacchaeus isolated and to, an extent, tangled in the tree. It’s reminiscent of Absalom and also of the tree in the Garden of Eden: neither connection had really struck me before.

    Jesus enters Zacchaeus's house and things largely proceed in line with the account in Luke 19:1-10, but there are more interesting ideas visually, not least the shot of one of the women of the house washing Jesus' feet. Zaccheus' wife had not been convinced about his career change, but was largely absent from the montage that charted his rise to power, but here she (?) takes the first active role in responding to Jesus, unwittingly aligning herself with the "woman of sinful life" from Luke 7.

    The moment of Zaachaeus' conversion is also portrayed interestingly, with a double exposure of his face overlaying a montaged flashback of earlier scenes in the film. Looking back it's easy to smirk at this shot which seems a quite dated by today's standards, but it's easy to forget that this film was made just a few months after the release of Citizen Kane, and only 12 years after Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, of which it's most reminiscent.

    However, arguably the film's most satisfactory shot comes right near the end, as Zacchaeus leaves his house to return his ill-gotten gains to his victims. The moment (see below) is shot from inside the house, over the shoulder of Jesus who stands in the doorway. Zaccheus gradually diminishes as he moves towards the townspeople, gradually merging with them and so bringing the attention back towards his new Lord. It pairs perfectly with the shot over Zacchaeus's shoulder earlier in the film, suggesting both unity and, perhaps, substitution, with its connotations of atonement. It's a fitting end for a production that uses strong visual ideas and good filmmaking technique to elevate it above its humble origins.

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    Sunday, March 08, 2015

    Nazarin (1959)


    Luis Buñuel is one of a small group of directors whose work started in the silent era and ran way into the 1970s. As a big fan of another member of that exclusive club - Alfred Hitchcock - it’s tempting to get drawn into comparisons between the two, not least because spiritual issues in general and their Jesuit Catholic educations in particular, were major influences on their work.

    I suspect that the attitudes to both men to questions of faith varied throughout their long careers. Certainly the harsh critique of religion in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way), where religion is a monstrous edifice built of false foundations, is in stark contrast to Nazarin where Buñuel finds sympathy for his religiously motivated lead, even if he implies that such a lost cause is an indication of the absence of God.

    It’s an unusual premise. Priests in movies tend towards one of two positions depending on the filmmakers’ prior beliefs: good priests whose example and ministry hint at the possibility of a good and gracious God; or bad priests whose sins typify the absence of God and, for the filmmaker at least, the murky motivations of many of those who have gained from abusing their position.

    Here however Buñuel presents us with a priest who distils the very best of all those movie priests but uses his ineffectiveness and naiveté to question the existence of God. In part it’s an inversion of the Job story, whereby despite God’s servant living exactly as he ought to, he ends up downtrodden and cursed, repeatedly causing harm not only to himself, but also those around him. There’s no upbeat ending however and ultimately it’s God, rather than his servant, that ends up in the dock.

    Yet it’s also a subversion of the example of Christ. Father Nazario is the very epitome of someone following in the footsteps of Jesus. He protects and attempts to reform the prostitute Andara; he frequently gives all his money away; he takes upa job only to leave it when he realises his appointment means others might go without; and he continues to preach the gospel to anyone that will listen. He even resists being called upon to miraculously heal a feverish girl, prays anyway, and then denies responsibility when she is healed.

    Yet, that incident aisde, instead of a successful ministry Nazario finds only failure and rejection. Indeed Buñuel even strips him of his chance to be a martyr. He’s imprisoned by the authorities, bound and due to March to court, but then at the last minute separated from the other prisonners and allowed to travel unfettered and accompanied by a guard out of uniform. Whilst Nazario is not exactly free, he is no longer fearing for his life. Indeed this is one of the few Christ-figure films that neither ends with the death of the protagonist, nor even photographs them in a cruciform pose.

    He does however manage to incur the wrath of the political and religious authorities. The church is scandalised by his relationship with the two women who accompany him, Beatriz and Andara. Andara is a former prostitute, Beatriz has psychotic episodes - including one where she imagines a picture of Jesus coming to life and mocking her - but both become devoted to Father Nazario and follow him everywhere..

    However, much to his annoyance, the source of their devotion is not his teaching, despite his frequent chastisement, indeed ultimately Beatriz returns to her abusive lover Pinto. In the final scene she is shown falling asleep on his shoulder as they ride past a bedraggled Father Nazario en route as he walks the long road to face the authorities.

    I say “authorities”, but by this stage the religious authorities have long made up their minds. Even at the start of the film he is considered something of a loose cannon, operating without a parish, By the end they consider him “reckless”, a “rebel spirit” affected by “madness”. Many parts of the film are damning of the church, but none more so that the penultimate scene where one of the bishop’s representatives tells him that “your habits contradict those of priests. Your ways confront the church which you claim to love and obey.”

    What’s interesting about the film is where it finishes, further along the road to judgement Nazrio is given a pineapple by a fruit seller. DIfferent writers have interpreted this in different ways. Some see it as symbolic of the crown of thorns, others as suggestive of a handgrenade and still others as a nod to the fruit of the tree of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. At first Nazrio rejects it, but then he changed his mind and acepts the women’s charity, walking on with a troubled, although rather ambiguous look on his face. Has he realised for the first time that he is a human who needs others as much as they need him? Or is this his realisation of the absence of God.

    Either way, ending at this point reminds me of how the ministry of Jesus must have looked like at this point. Despised and rejected, imprisoned by corrupt political authorities after the religious authorities have washed their hands of him. Rumours of him healing people in the past pale into insignificance the numbers of those who cheered him have dwindled away to just a prostitute and a mad woman. And even then they can’t stay awake at the crucial moment.

    Christianity, of course, centres on the notion that this was not the end of the story. But for a while, at least, things must have seemed as bleak as they do at the end of Nazarin.

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    Sunday, March 01, 2015

    CNN's Finding Jesus Starts Tonight

    At the start of the year I posted an article listing most of the Bible related films that are due to appear during 2015. Somehow, though, I managed to miss out CNN's six-part documentary Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, despite the fact that my friend Mark Goodacre is the main historical consultant on the series (though for a New Testament scholar he sometimes seems rather unaware of that bit about not hiding lights under bushels).

    Anyway, the first part of the series starts tonight (1st March) at 9pm ET/PT and will continue for the six Sundays leading up to Easter. I'll be interested to see how it,s received given that Mark revealed in a recent interview for CBN that, in contrast to the more sensationalist reporting that often surrounds these subjects, these films will be taking a calmer, more rational approach.

    I've updated my original post with the following summary:
    Finding Jesus: Faith Fact Forgery (CNN)
    Finding Jesus is a six part documentary from CNN examining some of the historical artefacts surrounding the historical Jesus. In contrast to many of the exaggerated claims made for some of these artefacts, the documentary will take a more rational approach, carefully examining the evidence. The six episodes will be: The Turin Shroud, John the Baptist (including the John the Baptist's finger relic), Judas (including the Gospel of Judas), the Secret Brother of Jesus (with the James Ossuary), The True Cross (fragments of the cross relics) and Mary Magdalene (covering all that Da Vinci Code malarkey). Mark Goodacre is the series' lead consultant and you can find out more on the programme's official website.

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    Friday, February 27, 2015

    Leviathan (2014)

    This review contains mild SPOILERS throughout, though they are not significant enough to actually spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film who is, at least, familiar with the story of Job.

    It’s not often I drive 50 miles to go and see a film, so when my friend and I were greeted with the news that the screening of Leviathan we had travelled an hour to see had been postponed our disappointment was tempered just a little by a certain sense of irony. As it turned the cinema had been sent a copy of the immersive 2012 fishing documentary Leviathan rather than Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 drama of the same name.

    The mix-up however, only goes to show the enduring popularity of the leviathan metaphor and the resonance of the Bible’s book of Job. The story and the powerful imagery that accompanies it has long held appeal for writers and artists.

    Having finally got to see it, Zvyagintsev’s film did not disappoint. Whilst Leviathan may not ultimately have won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar&TM; it was amongst the nominees and caused a stir earlier in the year when it won the Golden Globe in the same week that criticism emerged from the Russian authorities. Bizarrely it failed to win Russia’s Golden Bear award for best film despite a mountain of international acclaim.

    The objections from the authorities - both from government officials and from the Orthodox church - are not hard to understand: Leviathan shows both in a negative light, complicit in the events which see Kolya's life spin out of control. It starts when the, seemingly corrupt , mayor uses a compulsory purchase order to turf Kolya off his land. Kolya's old army buddy shows up, offering legal expertise, but escalates the case and then sleeps with Lilya, Kolya's wife.

    Things continue along this downward trajectory, meaning comparisons with Job are never far away, but unlike his biblical counterpart, there is no Hollywood ending. The final scenes sees his house being demolished, mirroring the fact that the rest of his life is already in ruins.

    The leviathan of the film's title appears in numerous different guises. There are the more literal shots of a whale surfacing from the sea briefly as Lilya ponders her life. Then there is the huge skeleton that lies stranded on the beach, the seemingly invulnerable beast of God's speech proven to be mortal, nevertheless.

    Then on a more metaphorical level there is Kolya's battle with the impassive establishment that upholds the mayor and seals his own fate. The system that could be abused in the first place, the courts that rapidly fire off their judgements unmoved by Kolya's protests. Then there is the police who make their initial assumptions and fail to ever really challenge them, like Bildad and his friends only with handcuffs instead of words.

    Perhaps the most interesting appearance of the leviathan motif appears as Kolya's house is demolished. In perhaps the film's most visually memorable shot we see the mechanical digger ripping away the wall of Kolya's house shot from inside the house. As the digger's boom reaches up and the scoop arches in the air, it looks for a moment like a mechanical sea monster devouring it's prey, as indeed it is.

    Lastly there is the church who may not exactly aide and abet the mayor in his villainy, but certainly offer little resistance and, as the final shot reveals are the ultimate beneficiaries of the mayor's scheming. For a moment the film's final scene appears to offer some ambiguity. Periodically throughout the film the mayor has discussed the meaning of life and faith with his bishop and as the bishop leads a service in a beautiful church the mayor momentarily breaks his beatific pose to whisper to his son "God sees everything, son". Has the mayor somehow been transformed by his conversations with the Bishop? But the film's final shot, at the end of the service reveals that This new church has been built on the place where Kolya's house once stood, his drive way now replaced with a car park full of expensive SUVs.

    Yet the depiction of Christianity here is not uniformly negative, in contrast to his bishop, Kolya's local priest, Father Vasily, is one of the few characters still there for him at the end. Whilst Kolya is buying vodka to drown his sorrows, Vasily is buying bread for the poor and it’s in their subsequent conversation that direct mention of, and quotations from, Job are made. Seemingly out of the blue Vasily asks “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or throw a rope on its tongue?” (Job 41:1) and goes on to tell Kolya the story of Job. But it’s difficult to know what to make of Vasily’s version of events. I’m not sure I agree with his explanation that “In the end God took pity on him… and explained it to him clearly”, nor am I convinced that “Job resigned himself to his fate”. Yet the conversation forms a connection between the two men, indeed it’s the last time that anyone in the film speaks to Kolya with compassion and humanity.

    Whilst this part of Leviathan’s script means that, on a textual level, it is more biblical, its bleak images don’t quite carry the spiritual power of The Return. There, the images that stay with you are of a beautiful world, largely untouched by human hands. Here, for all the beauty of the shot of Kolya’s son crouched by the skeleton of a whale on the beach, it’s the human aspects of the images that stay with you - the crumbling buildings, the shabby-chic interiors and the beautiful church interior - a white-washed tomb if ever there was one. The imagery here reflects violence, death and decay, and from the moment Koyla strikes his son in one of the film’s opening scenes, there’s a sense of unease and foreboding about the violence that is waiting in the wings.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but this sense of violence brewing reminds me of the disturbing deaths of Job’s children in the book’s opening chapter. Whilst Job gets is ultimately rewarded with new children it seems unlikely that this would ever really have compensated him. Indeed it makes me realise one of the things that is most disturbing about the Book of Job is that one of its later editors thought his jarringly “happy ending” would paper over the deep theological cracks left by all the pain and suffering that his predecessor expressed so eloquently.

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    All quotes are taken from an early version of the script and so may contain slight differences from the words spoken in the the film’s final cut.

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    Saturday, February 21, 2015

    The Vikings and King of Kings

    I'm finally sitting down to watch 1958's The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas. It's notable for a number of reasons not least teaming up Douglas with Tony Curtis for the first time, two years ahead of Spartacus.

    But I was struck in the early scenes between this and another 60s Roman crucifixion film, Kings of Kings (1961). The thing that first caught my attention was the voice-over that sets the scene for the action and a quick check of IMDb confirmed my suspicion - like King of Kings the narator is Orson Welles. The voice-over comes to a close over the opening scene and here there is a further similarity with the Jesus film, the opening scene is of an invading army overpowering the locals.

    Then there's the importance of the special baby. In The Vikings it's the son of the Northumbrian queen and her Viking attacker rather than Jesus, but the son is sent away to leaving many to wait expectantly for his return.

    Given the wide range of openings to Jesus films - from Rossellini's trip back to the selection of King Saul to Jesus making crosses in Last Temptation - it's significant, I think, that King of Kings adopts this incredibly similar opening approach.

    And then there's the appearance of Frank Thring as a disreputable King (Aella here, Herod in Kings). He even sits his throne on the top of a little set of velvet steps. I think that's more coincidental and there aren't many other major similarities in the rest of the film. But it is significant that King of Kings takes The Vikings' introduction and basically reproduces it.

    Just a couple of other film links. Firstly there's a scene where Curtis sends his hawk to peck out Douglas' eyes. Being a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock I could help thinking of The Birds, still 5 years away, not least because this film also stars Janet Leigh who would go on to star in another early 60s Hitchcock film, Psycho.

    Lastly, there's a scene where Douglas is trying to rally round his men to set off on another mission. There's an awkward pause whilst Douglas earnestly scans the group looking for people to indicate their desire to join him. If it wasn't two years before it was released you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was influenced by another film as you waited for someone to stand defiantly and declare "I'm Sparatcus!"

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    Sunday, February 15, 2015

    Earliest Remaining Bible Film Now Online
    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898)

    I'm currently reading David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film" and have been really interested, so far, by what I've read. Silent Bible films are one of the things I've discussed throughout the 9 year history of this blog going right back to some of my earliest posts in 2006. Those posts were spurred on by the discovery of a DVD on eBay of a couple of Jesus films, which purported to go right back to 1898 and 1900 respectively. Curiously though both seemed to contain scenes that I recognised from the 1902 film La vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, 1902).

    Dating that film is a difficult enough challenge. The earliest date for it seems to be 1902, but I've also heard 1905 and even 1908 cited (by Campbell & Pitts and Kinnard & Davis respectively) before. What I later learned was that Pathé used to put the various scenes together in a catalogue from which cinemas wishing to display them could pick and choose. The first tranche of scenes were released in 1902, but the catalogue was expanded over time with significant developments in 1905 and 1908. Indeed according to Kinnard and Davis, another version of this film emerged in 1914 under the title The Life of our Saviour and it seems that a version including some colour was also re-released in 1915 as both the titles Son of Man and Jesus of Nazareth and yet again in 1921 as Behold the Man!. That must have been a little bit like your friend inviting you around to play a great new video game they've just bought only to be presented with the original table tennis. The plot thickens still further because at some point someone took it upon themselves to get it hand-coloured (apocryphally by nuns) and it is this coloured footage that appears on the first commercially available DVD of the film.

    Shepherd's book doesn't solve all the questions that arise from this DVD, but in trawling through ancient copies of early cinema publications he is able to make a convincing case that the first Bible film was by Léar (a.k.a. Albert Kirchner) in 1897, simply called La Passion du Christ. It along with the other Jesus film from that year, The Horritz Passion Play are now both presumed lost. Similarly absent is Siegmund Lubin's 1898The Passion Play and those three films are more or less joined in obscurity by The Passion Play of Oberammergau save from a 35mm fragment last seen in the George Eastman House archives by Kinnard and Davis.

    Which means that, according to Shepherd, the oldest extant Jesus film is the other film from 1898 The Life and Passion of Jesus Christby George Hatot and the Lumières. Best of all is the news that the remaining footage of this film is available to watch and/or download for free from America's Library of Congress. Since they even allow you to embed it, I thought I'd break the habit of a lifetime and do just that, so here it is in all its glory:
    Where does this leave the claims of the film I have on DVD? Well, as I noted at the time,
    "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"
    But whereas then I thought this might have been the initial footage of Pathé's later The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, now I think it's various bits of film that someone has wrapped up altogether, in a similar fashion to the way someone has spliced together La vie de Moïse and The Life of Moses in the version in the Joye collection and indeed as they have combined other footage on the same DVD of a a couple of David films. And whilst I suspect some of the footage goes back to the same 1898 film, I'm not sure I trust the 1898 on the title card. After all, it's so prominent it feels a bit too much like the kind of selling point that someone would only conjure up sometime later.

    I'll discuss the actual film at a later date, but note for now how the shadows from the cross fall across the back wall rather than fall across the ground as might be expected.

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    Saturday, January 31, 2015

    Life of Brian in discussion with Jesus of Nazareth

    Mark Goodacre is currently teaching a module on Jesus in Film which is good news for the rest of us as it has led to him uploading his Celluloid Jesus pages again, as well as adding a substantial amount of new material and a few extra blog posts to boot.

    This week he's clearly been doing the late seventies as there are a few blog posts on Jesus of Nazareth and Life of Brian including YouTube links to all the talks from last year's "Jesus and Brian" conference.

    One post that particularly caught my eye was one where Mark discusses being "struck by several Brian - Jesus of Nazareth parallels". The one he discusses is a moment in Jesus of Nazareth when one of the villagers grumbles "What does Rome give us?"* It's memorable of course, because of the famous scene in Life of Brian where one of the leaders of the People's Front of Judea asks "What have they [the Romans] ever given us in return?" only for the group members to reel off an extensive list of benefits of living in the empire.

    What makes it particularly interesting to me is the short time gap between the two productions (just two and a half years between the first broadcast of Jesus of Nazareth at Easter 1977 and the release of Life of Brian in the autumn of 1979. Indeed the two films were recorded so close together that Brian was able to use its predecessor's sets. On top of this when you consider that British TV had only 3 channels at this point, that Jesus of Nazareth was a much publicised production and that this line of dialogue occurred in the first episode, then it's fairly likely that at least one of the Python troupe watched it at the time.

    Once you picture that, then it's not hard to believe that it's no mere coincidence that this line ended up in the Pythons' film, whether consciously or sub-consciously. Lloyd Baugh mentions Jesus of Nazareth's banalities and this is a particularly bad one - it's just not the way people express this kind of sentiment in real life. So perhaps the embryo of this scene was conceived then, whether spoken out at the time as a way of critiquing the programme, or something that just got lodged in the back of somebody's mind.

    I guess what interests me in all this is the way that it faintly mirrors the kind of critique of the early gospels we find in some of the later ones. Much has been made of the negative portrayal of Thomas in John's Gospel. Not a few scholars think that this might be John casting aspersions about Thomas and, by extension, the movement or the Gospel that came to be associated with him. Or think of the many times that Matthew and Luke take a pithy statement from Mark's Jesus and transforms it into a whole scene that makes the original phrase far more memorable - The Parable of the Good Samaritan for example.

    Those two example are from different ends of the spectrum. Many who would feel uncomfortable with the idea of John smearing Thomas in this way, would nevertheless be fine with Luke rearranging his material to make a particular point. But there are all kinds of these little interactions between the gospels, particularly the Synoptic Gospels, and given that they were written relatively close to one another it's not unreasonable to imagine those writing later taking their predecessor's words and enhancing, adjusting, correcting and, yes perhaps, even parodying some of what they had to say.

    I've just left a comment on Mark's post asking if he can remember any of the other examples of these parallels and will be interested to see whether any of these parallels also happen to parallel how the later gospel writers used their sources.

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    *Note Mark has this down as "What do the Romans give us?", but on a second hearing I beg to differ.

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    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    2015's Coming Attractions

    This post has been edited more than once to add in extra films omitted in error when it was originally published.
    Having reviewed 2014's Bible film offerings I thought it would be a good idea to preview some of the films that will be appearing on both the big and small screen across the course of the next 12 months. In contrast to last year - where it was the films based on the Hebrew Bible which were in the majority, this year it's almost entirely New Testament films. So in no particular order here's what's coming up in 2015.

    Last Days in the Desert
    Arguably the most interesting sounding of this year's offerings is Last Days in the Desert which premieré's at the Sundance film festival in a few days time. It's had a good deal of press coverage, not least in the UK, due mainly to the presence of Ewan MacGregor as both Jesus and Satan. The film will deal with Jesus' 40 days in the desert and also stars The Nativity Story's Ciarán Hinds. The official website is still a bit sparse, but Christianity Today has a lengthy interview with both MacGregor and director Rodrigo Garcia.

    A.D. (NBC)
    If the premise of Last Days sounds like it might be sailing a little close to the wind for some, one production that will be playing it considerably safer will be NBC's 12-hour New Testament series A.D.. To some it's a sequel to 2013's The Bible; to others a remake of the 1985 series of the same name, though that film was also often referred to as Anno Domini. NBC have done away with all that, ensuring that the series will be impossible to search for, if a little easier to tweet about. The trailer for the film was released a few days ago and features Peter and Jesus fairly prominently, but not a great deal of Saul/Paul. There's a little more on NBC's official site as well as a companion site featuring a glut of resources for churches and character profiles. The series premieré is on Easter Sunday (5th April 2015).

    Clavius
    Another film certain to feature legions of Roman armies is Clavius starring the other, other, other child star of the Harry Potter series, Tom Felton. Felton will play alongside Joseph Fiennes in the story about "an agnostic Roman legionnaire" who is "thrust into the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ". Details are still emerging, not least whether it is Felton or Fiennes who will play the titular character, and when, in relation to the death of Jesus, will the story start and end. It's also unclear just how much of a cameo Jesus will play in this film. Fiennes' brother, of course, played the part of Jesus in The Miracle Maker.

    National Geographic’s Killing Jesus
    or, "It's a Jesus film, only this time...it's franchised". National Geographic have had a good degree of success with Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, both based on Bill O'Reilly's and Martin Dugard's books of the same name, so you can see why they were tempted to jump back to the first century to film Killing Jesus as well. It's a little unclear when this is going to air, but it too may be an interesting project, not least because it features a Muslim playing the role of Jesus (Haaz Sleiman). It'll also feature Kelsey Grammer as Herod, as well as Stephen Moyer and Bible Films veteran John Rhys-Davies.

    Finding Jesus: Faith Fact Forgery (CNN)
    Finding Jesus is a six part documentary from CNN examining some of the historical artifacts surrounding the historical Jesus. In contrast to many of the exaggerated claims made for some of these artifacts, the documentary will take a more rational approach, carefully examining the evidence. The six sessions will cover, The Turin Shorud, John the Baptist (including the John the Baptist's finger relic), Judas (including the Gospel of Judas), the secret brother of Jesus (with the James Ossuary), the true cross (fragments of the cross relics) and Mary Magdalene (covering all that Da Vinci Code malarkey). Mark Goodacre is the series' lead consultant and you can find out more on the programme's official website.

    Mary
    Another Bible films veteran, Ben Kingsley, will also play the role of Herod in Mary, a film with a long, and some would say troubled, past from the pen of Barbara Nicolosi. Nicolosi has been involved since at least 2008, and then the talk was of that being a fifth draft of the script. Since then big names have come and gone (Al Pacino), the title has become more Aramaic sounding and then shortened back to just Mary, but there's still no sign of a website and the release date of April 2015 on the IMDb is looking a little unlikely. Perhaps given the Easter competition, the producers are thinking that the run up to Christmas might be a better time to release the film. Or perhaps this story is going to keep running for a good while yet.

    Lumo Project (Big Book Media)
    Last year, the Lumo Project released its version of The Gospel of John. According to Lumo's official website the other three are underway, and, according to the IMDb, at least two of those will be released this year (though it says Matthew was released in 2014, so it's perhaps not to reliable on this point). Quite when, where and how many of these projects will be released this year is anyone's guess.

    David and Goliath
    Having spent a good deal of time in 2014 writing on films about David, I was certainly interested to hear that another was due to be released in 2015. Sadly, and despite the filmmaker's claims of spending a, um, gigantic, $50 million on the project, any sense of anticipation has pretty much trailed away upon seeing this promo. The idea behind this trailer is to try and lever out some much needed funds for promotion. All I'm going to say is that they're going to need to find some people with rather less wisdom than the offspring of this film's eponymous hero.

    The Ark (BBC)
    Lastly, and not put off by a major film released with similar subject matter being released last year is The Ark from the BBC. It might be promising, actually. A far more accessible and middle of the road portrait than Aronofsky's Noah last yuear, I would imagine, but not necessarily the worse for that. David Threlfall takes the lead role (having played alongside Russell Crowe in Crowe's other big boat thriller Master and Commander) ably supported by Joanne Whalley and Nico Mirallegro. There's a few glimpses of footage on this BBC general preview. Tony Jordan, who wrote 2010's The Nativity for the BBC, has written this one as well, so expect a humanised and sympathetic telling should this ever make it.

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    Doubtless there are others I have missed and there are a number of other films gaining publicity at the moment that aren't even due to arrive until 2016, including the adaptation of Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, another version of Ben Hur and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth based on Reza Aslan's controversial book.

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    Wednesday, January 07, 2015

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2014

    In previous years, I’ve offered a review of the year, although this has rather fallen by the wayside in recent time. However, 2014 was a bit of a stonker, so it would seem remiss not to do at least something.

    The big news was, of course, the long awaited release of a number of biblical epics, which hit not just the odd art-house cinema, or graced a local congregation with a decentish video projector, but in the local, everyday cinemas. Russell Crowe was talking about Noah in primetime TV shows. The Guardian was offering opinion pieces about Moses every time Ridley Scott coughed in a vaguely atheistic manner.

    As it turned out neither film made the, um, waves, that their respective studios had hoped for and neither director will be pleased to hear that they are more likely to win a Razzie than an Oscar come the spring.

    But before all that there was the matter of the Son of God - not so much the actual one as the cinema release of the Gospel footage from the History Channel’s 2013 series The Bible. Cutting down a TV series to a movie is a risky strategy. On the one hand the popularity of the “best of” genre might mean that he TV series might just be part of a lengthy marketing campaign – the world’s longest ever trailer if you like. But the question still remained, why would people get in their cars, drive out of town and pay through the nose to watch something they have already seen for “free”?

    As it turned out Son of God did rather well, perhaps because compelling answers were found to that question. Buying a ticket to Son of God was a statement of faith, a chance to send a message to Hollywood. Or you could buy two and bring along a friend with whom you wanted to share your faith.

    From an artistic point of view however the quality of the product was largely the same as that of the original 2013 series. Jesus was still too blond and off-puttingly good looking; the dialogue and the acting still left a great deal to be desired; and it still wasn’t really clear what Jesus was actually about other than being nice.

    One Bible film hero who eluded, with consummate ease, any charge of being overly nice, was Russell Crowe’s Noah, who shifted from grunting environmentalist to genocidal maniac over the course of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It’s the kind of precipice along which many edge along when they tell us how bad humans in general, and children in particular, are bad for the environment? But that’s another matter.

    Actually the scenes where Noah contemplates whether he should kill his own granddaughter were, in my opinion, rather misunderstood. Noah didn’t want to murder members of his own family, he just thought it might be what “The Creator” was calling him to do. After all it was the logical extension of what he had already done – a point that may of the faithful struggle to appreciate. It was a great performance from Crowe, but the terrain of unlikeable anti-hero seemed to leave the film, rather than just its antihero rather unloved. It was a shame. Aronofsky’s bizarre epic was drenched in biblical and other religious references, many of which weren’t even half as odd as the original text.

    December is often a busy time of year for those of us interested in Bible films and 2014 would prove no exception. In the cinema Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings (my review ) received a fairly lukewarm welcome in many western countries and was banned in several countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In the current climate it's hard to know which is more damaging, western indifference or Egyptian anger.

    In the west the film's biggest talking point was the supposed white washing, casting Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale as an Egyptian and someone who manages to pass as an Egyptian for forty years. I must admit I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand Christian art has always portrayed the faith's heroes in its own image as a way of relating to them. At the same time, as my comments above about Son of God suggest I also like to see more realistic casting.

    One film that did embrace a more ethnically accurate Jesus was The Gospel of John the latest output from the Lumo Project (an offshoot of Big Book Media). The series, which is available on Netflix, narrates John's Gospel over dramatized reconstructed video footage. Jesus is played by Selva Rasalingam who is half Tamil. If his face is familiar it’s because he has been playing Jesus in various Lumo/Big Book projects over the last few years, including the music video for Deliriou5?'s "History Maker" and the BBC’s The Story of Jesus (2011). Also part of those projects, as well as 2012’s David Suchet: In the Footsteps of St Paul, is director David Batty.

    The Lumo Project will eventually cover all four gospels in the same style, and Netflix features narration in both the King James and the New International versions of the Bible. As a medium it’s very similar to the Genesis Project’s Gospel of Luke (1979) which starred Brian Deacon and was recut as Jesus (1979), certainly it’s quite different in feel from other the two Visual Bible word for word projects Matthew (1994) and Gospel of John (2003).

    Given that John’s Gospel only received the word for word treatment 11 years ago, it’s surprising that the filmmakers have chosen to start with John, particularly as John’s wordy gospel is perhaps the one least suited to such a treatment. Personally I wished they’d opted for the only gospel not, yet, to have been filmed this way, Mark. But that will later this year if the IMDb is to be believed. Hopefully it will get a UK Netflix release as well. Incidentally 2015 will also see Rasalingam star as James in a Jesus-cameo film Clavius

    The appearance of The Gospel of John on Netflix seems to reflect a broader trend of niche faith-based films being broadcast away from traditional channels. Another such production in 2014 was The Red Tent, an adaptation of Anita Diamant’s historicalish novel of the same name. Diamant’s novel took the stories from around Genesis around Leah and Jacob’s daughter Dinah and re-imagines Shechem as her lover rather than her rapist. Young’s mini-series, which aired on the Lifetime network early in December, cast Rebecca Ferguson, star of 2013’s excellent The White Queen’s, and also features Minnie Driver, Debra Winger, Morena Baccarin and Hiam Abbass in prominent roles. Peter Chattaway has a great interview about the series with the director Roger Young.

    The other TV film worth a mention was the BBC animated short film On Angel Wings, which aired in the UK on Christmas Eve. It starred an old man recalling the visit of the Angels on the first Christmas night to the group of shepherds he worked for and how one angel secretly flew him to the stable so he got to meet the baby Jesus. Readers may recall my enjoyment of the Fourth King a fictional tale about the magi. On Angel Wings would make a good companion piece dealing as it does with Jesus' other Christmas visitors.

    Then there were several smaller films which brought the more poetic parts of the Bible to the screen. The Song re-imagined the life of King Solomon as an amorous country singer, with nods to both Song of Songs/Solomon and Ecclesiastes. Meanwhile Amos Gitai directed one of the short films in the anthology film Words with Gods. Gitai already has two fine Bible films under his wings, [Esther (1996) and Golem: l'esprit de l'exil (1992)] and here he took the on the work of his namesake, the prophet Amos.

    Perhaps the most significant of the films dealing with the more poetic parts of the Bible was Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan. As with The Song it took the form of a modern story, this time the story revolves around a man fighting corruption in the coastal town where he lives, but there is also a healthy dose of the Book of Job. It's also likely to be the most successful of those films with a substantial link to the Bible, having been Russia's entry for the foreign language Oscar it's now one of the final nominations and has already won the Golden Globe in the same category.*

    Documentary-wise it was a fairly light year, though it's more than possible I missed something. David Suchet did feature in In the Footsteps of St. Peter, the follow up to his 2013 In the Footsteps of St Paul .

    However, there were a couple of new books about Bible Films that are worth a mention. David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film" looks to be an excellent guide to an under-discussed period in the genre's development. I couldn't afford the hardback or a Kindle editions so I've only read excerpts but the bits I've read are full of fascinating detail and insight. Technically the hard back was released right at the end of 2013, but seeing as the paper back will be released in March this year, we can split the difference. I'm looking forward to getting a copy.

    Another book to touch upon the sub-genre is Graham Holderness' "Re-Writing Jesus: Christ in 20th-Century Fiction and Film" which touched on Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ and The DaVinci Code, as well as various books about the life of Jesus. There were also various books released related to the films mentioned above including a picture book for the team behind Son of God.

    And lastly there was a conference. Not so much about a Jesus Films as a very close relation. "Jesus and Brian: or What Have the Pythons Ever Done for us?" ran for three days in June in Kings College, London and featured an impressive team of speakers, including John Cleese and Terry Jones, and even gained some national press coverage. Sadly neither time, nor money, nor health, permitted me to be there, but Mark Goodacre made it, blogged about it and did rather rub salt in the wounds of those of us who would have loved to be there but weren't. I mean, he got to meet John Cleese.

    Anyway 2015 promises a great deal. There are various films due for release about which Peter Chattaway is doing some great blogging. He also posts numerous things on the Bible Films Facebook page, for which I'm incredibly grateful. There's also a few books to look out for, including David Shepherd's follow up volume "The Silents of Jesus" and there might even be a book with a couple of chapters by myself to report on in next year's review of the year.

    *There were some subsequent edits here, made after the Oscar nominations

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    Sunday, January 04, 2015

    On Angel Wings (2014)

    In a year of many Bible films being released, one that rather flew under the radar is On Angel Wings, an animated retelling of the Nativity Story directed by Dave Unwin. Whilst Unwin was also involved with writing the screenplay, the main writing credits belong to children's author Michael Morpurgo who penned the book on which the film is based.

    The book's original illustrations were by the great Quentin Blake, but Blake wasn't involved in this animated re-telling which came from a partnership between Illuminated Films, Jerusalem Productions and the BBC. As a result the characters are rendered rather differently from the book giving the new work a fresh feel and severing the tie with the original novel. There are some fairly bold choices in this respect as well. The sharp angular lines used for the angels contrast with the softer more rounded illustration for the human characters. It emphasises the other worldliness of the celestial visitors, as well as the fact that they have an importance, of sorts, as messengers of the king (of kings).

    The other interesting decision regarding the animation is the way figures often hold more or less the same pose for a while before shifting to a new position. This gives the film the feel of an animate book, reminding viewers of the piece's literary roots.

    For a humblish project such as this, the cast list is certainly impressive. The leading character, Amos, appears as an aging grandfather recounting the most singular moment from his childhood and the elderly Amos is voiced by Michael Gambon, in what will probably not be his most widely appreciated voice work on an animated children's film in 2014 (he's also in Paddington). Also involved are Juliet Stevenson as Mary, Colin McFarlane(Commissioner Loeb in The Dark Knight) as Joseph and Dominic Cooper (Captain America) as the Angel Gabriel.

    As a production it's charming enough. Accessible for the younger children and generating a bit of extra interest for children up to pre-teens. However, it rather lacks having anything of substance to say about the Christmas story. Jesus is portrayed as a king but his supposed divine origins are rather watered down for a story based on an angelic visitation. Furthermore his ability to change the world is reduced simply to his ability to "bring us love, through which we will at last have peace and goodwill on Earth" and to "show us a better way of living". There's much truth in that of course, but "love" existed long before Jesus was born and hasn't yet brought any significant measure of peace. It's the significance of Jesus identity which makes the love Jesus embodies special, but the BBC's a bit too PC to mention all that. Indeed, the word "God" doesn't really feature at all.

    The other notable weakness concerns the flashback structure, whereby the story is retold by the now elderly Amos. Despite the fact that Amos has kept in touch with Jesus' life as a adult he has never mentioned these events to anyone which contrasts rather strongly with the reaction of the shepherds in Luke. Did these amazing events change Amos' life at all? We're given no indication. It also leaves the "grandfather" section of the story in a time strangely unaffected by Jesus's life and death.

    These shouldn't overlook the film's strengths. In addition to the animation there are also a few good lines for the adults to enjoy too, and a good bit of adventure. Indeed children will find it easy to relate to Amos - there's a good deal of character development is a relatively short period of time. The film also manages to walk the line between the best and worst of humanity's potential. Even if the final lesson "you have to keep believing in yourself" is a bit mawkish On Angel Wings will provide many families a good way to think about the true meaning of Christmas.

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    On Angel Wings is available on BBC iPlayer until the 24th January 2015. The BBC website also features an article by Michael Morpurgo, some character profiles, clips and another article on the film. More details are available from the film's official website.

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    Friday, January 02, 2015

    Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

    Given its big-budget and epic scale, it's tempting to think of Ridley Scott's Exodus: God's and Kings as a remake of The Ten Commandments (1956) for the 3D age, but in many ways it's more of a live action remake of The Prince of Egypt (1998). Certainly the two films explore the theme of brotherhood, a fact underlined by Scott dedication of the film to his late brother. Whilst The Ten Commandments also dwells on the rivalry between Ramses and Moses, no love is lost between them - Ramses' jealousy-fuelled disdain is matched only by Moses' impassive morality.

    Here however the bromance-turned-sour theme rests on solid performances from Christian Bale (Moses) and his sort of cousin Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Early on their "father" Seti (in an intriguing performance by Coen Brothers' favourite John Turturro) expresses his qualms about Ramses' faults, but when Seti's death coincides with discoveries about Moses' past, the new Pharaoh swoops to secure his throne.

    In the run up to Exodus' release I found it hard to imagine Christian Bale as Moses, least of all when portrayed as a combative fighter-general who turns terrorist. In other Moses movies these scenes were played by a pure and upright Heston, a feeble Kingsley, an effeminately drawn Kilmer and by Burt Lancaster's son. But Bale's performance is one of the best aspects of the film, bringing a new angle to Moses and the threat of a Hebrew uprising. Various Moses films have depicted the actions of the fearful Pharaoh who drowned the Hebrew boys. Few have captured the dread and paranoia behind them. Bale's more muscular performance in tandem with Edgerton's subtle and not unsympathetic turn as Ramses take the film into new territory.

    Perhaps it's because the two leads perform so well that Scott draws so little on the wealth of acting talent he also had on the payroll. Sigourney Weaver is almost invisible. Aaron Paul hardly speaks. Turturro sparks in his few scenes but is snuffed out of soon. Kingsley gets the next greatest amount of screen time, but even his role is limited.

    Indeed other than the leads, arguably the most interesting performance comes from the 11-year old Isaac Andrews as Malak, a figure halfway between God and his messenger. This fits well with the ambiguity in Exodus 3 over the identity of the voice that speaks to Moses. Not a few have objected to this portrayal finding Andrews petulant and inconsistent. One can only assume these objections come from those who haven't read Exodus 4:24-26 in a while (where God, having just commissioned Moses, then tries to kill him).

    Yet despite these subtleties, it's difficult to see what persuaded Fox to press ahead with this project. It's been ten years since The Passion stunned movie execs with its surprise success at the box office. But that success was routed in the devout turning out to show their support for a faithful retelling of the pivotal moment in their faith. It was shot on a small budget and as both Hollywood studios and Christian filmmakers have discovered, what will get the devout to turn out has proved perilously hard to predict.

    Furthermore Scott's vision of the film, gestated more in atheism than in belief in the supernatural, was the kind of approach that was likely to leave church audiences wary whilst not sufficiently detoxifying the Bible brand to appeal to the non-religious.

    As it turns out, though, Jewish, Christian and Muslim audiences need not have been so cautious. Scott's scepticism only results in ambiguity rather than a credible debunking and, for me at least, the film's internal logic undoes much of the scientific theories it presents.

    Take, for example, the bump on the head which immediately precedes Moses' first encounter with God. This is arguably Exodus' most controversial moment suggesting that Moses was, in fact, suffering from some kind of hallucination. Yet such a theory suffers because from the very start of the film Moses is the most rational, anti-religious sceptic in the whole film. Wouldn't he, of all people, questioned whether his bash on the head was partly responsible for his new vision? Would such trauma-induced visions persist even for a few weeks, let alone the months and years that pass over the course of the film?

    Then there are the plagues. Scott draws on theories that have been around for many years which have suggested that the rivers turning to blood was what drove the frogs onto land, which caused the plague of flies and resulted in various other plagues occurring. Strangely, such theories tend to act like Rorschach ink blot tests: Believers see confirmation of the events narrated in scripture; unbelievers see a rational explanation that removes the need for God.

    Exodus: Gods and Kings puts this theory on the lips of an Egyptian professional sceptic played by Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner. However, instead of portraying Bremner's character as a wise, archetypal scientist, centuries ahead of his time, he is played as a comically incompetent charlatan, his sudden execution being played for one of the film's few laughs. It's not unprecedented that such a comical character unwittingly hits upon scientific truth (Pumbaa's "big balls of gas millions of light years away") but these moments are generally for knowing comic purposes themselves rather than for advancing serious theories.

    What's also odd is that whereas these domino theories about the plagues tend to see the first plague as the result of exponential growth in the numbers of red-coloured algae, here a plague of crocodiles descend on a fishing boat and having devoured the fishermen they then turn on each other. The modification, though, raises two further critical problems. Firstly even this bloodbath seems insufficient to cause the level of pollution that the film suggests and moreover, what caused the sudden and unusual convergence of all these crocodiles in the first place?

    Perhaps the most glaring example of this tendency is in the parting of the Red Sea. Here the film's theory is that the seabed is cleared by the drawback preceding the tsunami which then annihilates Pharaoh's soldiers. It's not necessarily a bad theory, but it's both unnecessary from a biblical point of view and undermined by subsequent action. On the one hand a far simpler explanation can be found in the footnotes of the Bible itself - the earliest manuscripts talk not about the Red Sea, but about the Sea of Reeds - a shallower, marshier area many miles away, where ordinary overnight tidal variations might make all the difference. In any case this section of the film culminates in the movie's most preposterous scene where despite getting hit with the full force of the tsunami both Moses and Ramses somehow manage to survive.

    In many ways this gets right to the tension at the heart of such a production which is caught between forwarding rational alternative explanations and presenting a spectacular biblical action movie. So many moments in film history rest on the utterly unbelievable - from Buster Keaton's antics on The General to the spinning hallway scene in Inception. Attempting to explain one seemingly watery implausibility (the parting of a huge body of water) and then randomly inventing another immediately afterwards (Moses surviving a tsunami) them is to go against the flow of the both this specific film and the broader genre. Why not just pass on the whole "dry land" bit and have Moses and his followers surf over on the crest of a giant wave?

    Indeed what's strange about Scott's attempts to explain away the supernatural aspects of the story is that far simpler explanations for the miraculous events described in the final texts of Exodus can be found through the work of literary criticism. But then they would not have provided the ingredients for a biblical blockbuster. Ultimately Scott seems to want to have his cake whilst audiences eat it.

    And as blockbuster historical epic beefcake goes, it's surprisingly palatable. It's no Gladiator, of course, even to those who question its weaknesses, but it's a far greater film than Scott's woeful Robin Hood and a good deal better than either Kingdom of Heaven or 1492: Conquest of Paradise. As with those films the detailed sets, costumes and CGI make for an impressive spectacle and the pacing and tension are good throughout. Indeed of all the Moses films I have seen none capture the drama of the chasing Egyptian army as plausibly as this. Sadly I suspect that yet another commercial failure by a Biblical epic will lead to a long hiatus in big budget Bible films for the immediate future.

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