• 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.

    Thursday, January 19, 2017

    A Few Moments of Silence

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

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

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

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

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


    Monday, December 19, 2016

    The Book of Judith (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Sunday, December 11, 2016

    (Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat Ng Prinsesang Bayawak)

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Saturday, November 05, 2016

    The Canon Post-The Passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Monday, October 24, 2016

    The Canon Around the Millennium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Monday, October 17, 2016

    The Canon in the "Experimental" Era

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
    The "Golden Era" of Bile films ended with a series of perceived failures leading the major studios to be cautious about investing more money into opulent epics that were unlikely to provide a good return, yet amongst writers, directors, evangelists and actors there was no shortage of interest in adapting the Bible. This led to a more experimental age. Forced to work with lower budgets, filmmakers devised more creative ways to explore the biblical text. Furthermore, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup massive budgets, meant that filmmakers no longer had to aim for the middle-of-the-road lowest common denominator. They could more boldly pursue their own artistic vision, pose their own questions and explore issues that more mainstream movies simply could not risk.

    The difference between these two eras is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the contrast between the Jesus movies of the two ages. 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens) was a big budget, yet respectful and deferential, epic which presented a Jesus who conformed to, rather than questioned, the establishment view of Jesus. Just eight years later, three very different Jesus films were battling it out at the box office, all with startling different portrayals of Jesus, all of which had clearly departed from the traditional funding model.

    The most famous of the three films was Jesus Christ, Superstar. Superstar started life out as a single in 1968, which then led to a concept album (1970), and then to an arena tour and wildly successful theatre productions on both sides of the Atlantic.1 Thus by the time the film was released in 1973 there was already a ready made audience for the film, and indeed much of the phenomenal support that the previous incarnations had enjoyed, transferred to the movie. As a result the production's portrayal of Jesus - as a visionary who loses his way in the adulation that accompanies his growing popularity - was able to be far more radical than anything that had preceded it and whilst it was set in the Israeli desert it blurred the boundaries between Roman Judea and modern-day America.

    In a not dissimilar fashion, another musical - Stephen Schwarz's Godspell - also appeared on Broadway in the early seventies before being adapted for the silver screen. Here however the adaption was more innovative from a formal angle setting the story firmly in modern-day New York and dressing Jesus and his disciples in clown suits. Whilst the film's theology was not quite as radical as Superstar, it nevertheless ended the film without a traditional resurrection scene (which is present in both stage-shows in a fashion at Jesus's gleaming reappearance at the final curtain).

    The third Jesus film of 1973 is also one that is primarily about the music, The Gospel Road (dir. Robert Elfstrom) starring Johnny Cash. This film also relied on an unconventional funding model and utilised a combination of star-power and enthusiasm amongst religious groups to bring in its audience. Whereas Superstar and Godspell had used their degrees of liberty to offer unorthodox takes on the gospel narratives, The Gospel Road used its relative freedom to push a more overtly evangelistic agenda. This was even more the case with Jesus (1979) which was specifically produced with an evangelistic use in mind. The very same year the most controversial film to portray events from the gospels was released. Monty Python's Life of Brian, which followed the character Brian of Nazareth whose life coincided at key with that of his town's most famous citizen, proved hugely controversial on its release for it's supposedly blasphemous portrayal of Jesus. The following decade two even more unconventional films about the life of Christ emerged - Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Jesus of Montreal by Denys Arcand. Not all cinema releases chose such an unconventional path; King David (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1985) was arguably less, rather than more, controversial than its 1951 predecessor David and Bathsheba.

    The move of biblical films to outside of the mainstream was also reflected in the range of countries which made films during this period. If Hollywood's golden era had also been reflected in a growing interest in countries further afield, that tendency only increased during the late sixties, seventies and eighties. In particular in Europe where Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands all released their maiden Bible films. However, many of these productions were not made to be viewed in cinemas, but at home on their respective television networks.

    Whilst television had emerged during, and perhaps even been a catalyst for, the golden age of Bible films, it was in this period that it really came of age as a medium for producing biblical films. There are a number of notable trends in this respect. Firstly that, at times, television could be far safer even than the epics of the major studios. Programmes made by commercial channels seeking to gain an even higher audience for their advertisers, not only had an incentive to take fewer risks, but often needed to break stories down into bite-sized pieces such that commercial breaks could interrupt the programme regularly. This was not always the case, of course, Rossellini's two New Testament productions - Acts of the Apostles (1969) and The Messiah (1975) - are fine examples from a director who was convinced of the artistic importance and potential of television. It's interesting to note however that in an era that served up Jesus Christ Superstar, Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ that the Jesus film that drew the widest audience was Franco Zefferelli's made for TV Jesus of Nazareth.2

    The other notable trend in this era was that it gave filmmakers the potential for to explore their given subject at far greater length. Sometimes this is with regard to the length of time available for just one story, such as Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, but other times it allowed a greater number of stories, covered as separate episodes. The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series, for example, spanned 17 episodes including lesser covered stories such as Joshua, the Tower of Babel, Daniel and Esther.

    Another series was produced during this time frame that also covered multiple episodes. The similarly named The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible contained seven stories from the Hebrew Bible, but rather than being produced for the cinema or live action television they were cartoons which came to prominence more through their release on video. This was the start of a new trend which came to expand greatly over the final two eras.

    But whilst some of these series might have covered some of the stories that had proved less popular, for the first time the number of stories being adapted for the first time almost became non-existent. Muharrem Gürses' Nemrud (Nimrod, 1979) may have been the first director to have made a film about the man frequently associated with the building of the Tower of Babel, but the story itself was first covered in 1921's La Sacra Bibbia and more recently in Hustons' 1966 film The Bible: In the Beginning as well as the aforementioned episode from The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series.

    Indeed only one story that had not been covered before was given its first outing during this period; The story of Tamar, Er, Onan and Judah was covered in the Italian/German/Swiss production La salamandra del deserto, released in English speaking countries as Tamar, Wife of Er (dir. Riccardo Freda, 1970). Whilst this is doubtless due to the sheer quantities of biblical stories that had been covered previously it does also suggest that by this stage the "canon" was beginning to close.


    1 - This is widely attested but this 2012 interview sums it up nicely and is worth a read anyway.
    2 - It's worthin noting however that the production team behind Jesus of Nazareth had earlier been involved in producing the rather more revisionist Moses the Lawgiver which perhaps goes someway to explaining the controversy the project faced in its earliest days, despite the fact it was ultimately to provide a rather bland portrayal.


    Saturday, October 08, 2016

    The Canon in "the Golden Era"

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the relationship between the Bible, the idea of canonicity and film.
    Just as cinema saw off the challenges of the great depression and the second world war, it faced a new problem - the rise of the television set. Whilst during the late forties and early fifties the ownership of television sets was still fairly low, filmmakers began to realise that if cinema was to survive it was going to have to offer audiences something they couldn't get at home. If the forties were typified by low-budget, black and white noir, the fifties and sixties would become defined by opulence and spectacle. Technicolor - which had been available since the late silent era - finally began to become the norm. By 1960 cinema finally reached the point whereby more films were being recorded in colour than in black and white. And then there was the development of various widescreen formats - a bigger and better canvas on which cinemas artists and showmen could tell their tales.

    No-one had a better nose for the opportunity for spectacle than Cecil B. DeMille and so it's perhaps no surprise that it was he who was amongst the first to respond to these new challenges and opportunities. His 1949 Samson and Delilah was such a game changer that it kickstarted a twenty year period that became synonymous with the historical epic, particularly those based on the Bible. DeMille's film, including its style, approach and its politics would be much copied, though few films would surpass its box office success, turning a $3 million budget into $11 million income in 1950 alone, and almost $29 million overall.1

    Seven years later DeMille was at it again, producing the movie that would become the most totemic Bible film of all time. The Ten Commandments, in some ways a remake of his own 1923 adaptation, made $65 million in the US alone and it remains the 6th highest grossing film in the all-time adjusted chart.2.

    Two other films from this era are particularly noteworthy, though their dependence on the actual biblical text is somewhat more tangential. The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953) was the first film to adapt the CinemaScope process which remains the most notable landmark in film history after the introduction of sound. Koster would later develop the lesser known biblical epic The Story of Ruth (1960). The other is of course 1959's Ben-Hur (1959) which went on to sweep the OscarsTM with a, still unsurpassed, 11 awards. These notable, but occasional, peaks proved enough to sustain the genre through a myriad of films that were less successful - either at the box-office, or with critics, or with both.

    The sheer volume of films made during this period is particularly noteworthy. In just seventeen years between Samson and Delilah and 1966's The Bible, 92 films were produced based on the Hebrew Bible and at least 25 films that featured Jesus. And this excludes films such as The Silver Chalice and Demetrius and the Gladiators, both 1954, which took the lightest touch on the Bible, or others such as the various Italian Samson films which were really only about the Old Testament strongman in name alone.

    Indeed a significant part of the reason for the number of epics during this era was due to the re-emergence of the Italian film industry. Whilst on the one hand it's artistic wing re-emerged under the banner of neorealism, it's studios churned out sword and sandal movies at a tremendous rate including multiple entry series based on figures such as Hercules, Goliath and Samson. Of course this era was also the one where these two strands merged together in perhaps the most unlikely of ways, in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964).

    Sadly the majority of Bible films made in Italy during this period were not up to the same quality, tending to be cheaply and quickly made. That said they did give profile to some of the stoties that, by that time, were being ignored by Hollywood. Marcello Baldi, Francisco Pérez-Dolz's I grandi condottieri (Gideon and Samson, 1965) was the first film to feature Gideon and there were also rare outings for the stories of Athalia [Atalia (dir. Mario Ferrero, 1964)] and the Macabees [Il Vecchio Testamento (dir. Gianfranco Parolini, 1962)] all from Italian studios.

    This wider range of stories was also boosted by the emergence of smaller independent/church-based filmmakers and, of course, television. The Living Bible series not only covered a high proportion of the stories from the gospels, but it also expanded to cover most of the book of Acts and many of the stories from the Old Testament. Indeed it's coverage of the Old Testament was perhaps the first time a group of filmmakers had selected a group of stories they wished to adapt on the basis of their biblical prominence and importance, rather than on artistic or financial merit. Given such a premise it's perhaps not surprising that the films are poor artistically, for reasons beyond just their low budget, but across the genre as a whole they also fill a vital role being the first time that characters such as Joshua and Isaiah had been depicted on screen. Elsewhere TV's Matinee theatre brought us The Prophet Hosea (1958).

    Another significant development in this period was the explosion of Bible films being produced from outside of Europe and North America. Whilst research into the development of Bible film outside of "the West" lags behind, this era saw the first Bible films being released in Catholic Southern American countries (Brazil & Argentina), Israel, India, the Philippines and a number of predominantly Muslim countries (Egypt, Iran and Turkey).

    Of course many of the usual stories continued to prove popular, with films about Adam & Eve (6), David (12), Joseph (9), Moses (10), Samson (7) and Solomon (7) all proving popular and it's striking that these correlate fairly closely with the hugely successful films of the 1920s. There's the odd exception: Having proved popular with the very earliest filmmakers the story of Joseph had not been covered much during the late silent / early sound period, conversely other than forming a key section of Huston's The Bible (1966), the story of Noah was only covered in Disney's animated short Noah's Ark and the Belgian Noah (1964).

    Indeed it was perhaps the perceived failure of Huston's film (which did eventually turn a profit) that signalled the end of this era. The film was released the year after the more high profile failure of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the traditional biblical epic limped off seemingly fatally wounded. Yet whilst the major studios opted to give the Bible a wide berth the subject was to continue to prove popular with smaller filmmakers, who, liberated from the pressure of having to recoup a huge budget were able to produce more challenging and experimental adaptations of the biblical text. It's to them I'll turn next...

    1 - the-numbers.com - retrieved 5th October 2016
    2 - Box Office Mojo - retrieved 5th October 2016


    Sunday, October 02, 2016

    Joshua Films Redux

    Back in 2009 I wrote a post on films about Joshua but I was a little short on ideas. Since then, however, I've become aware of several more, and indeed thought of several I should have included in the first place, so I thought it was about time I revisited the subject.

    Filmmakers have approached the character of Joshua and the book that bears his name in three main ways: metaphorically, as a minor character in films about Moses and as the "hero" in adaptations of the Book of Joshua.

    The earliest film to evoke Joshua was the silent film The Walls of Jericho (dir. Lloyd B. Carleton, 1914) but this was a modern day drama that used a story from the book of Joshua as a metaphorical reference point. A more famous example of this approach occurs in It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934) where Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are forced to share a room together. To preserve propriety Gable hangs a blanket between their beds, but when the blanket comes down in the morning it's clear that Colbert's defences have too. She is now in love with him.

    A more popular approach has been to include Joshua as a minor character in the story of Moses, as
    Joshua also appears fleetingly in the Pentateuch. The two most famous filmic appearances of Joshua are John Derek's portrayal of him in DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments and Aaron Paul's in Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014). In both films Joshua is portrayed as a upright, likeable and loyal assistant to Moses. In many ways however Joshua functions as a semi-fictional character - neither film features Pentateuchal episodes and he acts more as a stand-in for the audience. This is particularly true of Paul who poses the kinds of questions that the audience might also be asking.

    The more extensive adaptations of Moses have featured incidents such as the victory over the Amalekites or his spying mission into Canaan. Moses the Lawgiver (dir. Gianfranco de Bosio, 1975) includes both of these incidents although the former is curiously unlike the biblical account. Instead of a battle led by Joshua whilst Aaron and Hur hold Moses' arms aloft, a fictional character comes up with a plan, which is then executed in the middle of the night Joshua's role is minimised. He is shown as one of the twelve spies however, and the closing scenes feature a montage of his victories over the Canaanites.

    Also notable are Moses (dir.Roger Young, 1996) which includes ends with Joshua being commissioned, making his speech from the start of the Book of Joshua and then flashes forward to Joshua's final speech; and The Ten Commandments (dir. Robert Dornhelm, 2006) which includes the defeat of the Amalekites.

    Given the controversy surrounding the Israelite's conquest in Canaan it's perhaps not surprising that filmmakers have tended to avoid portraying either Joshua the man, or any of the episodes from the book that bears his name. The only episode from the Book of Joshua to have been adapted – with the exception of The Living Bible's Joshua - The Conqueror (dir. Edward Dew, 1958) - is the fall of Jericho. Portrayals of this incident have handled the question of divinely authorised violence in very different ways.

    Dew's unvarnished film offers little interpretation aside from choosing not to show any of the inhabitants of Jericho other than Rahab's family, denying their voice and their humanity. The effect of not doing so becomes apparent moments later when Achan is stoned for theft. Giving him a voice makes the sentence seem unfair, a voice those from Jericho were denied.

    Nine years later Joshua appeared again in the US TV series The Time Tunnel where each week two scientists materialised in a different historical period. The only story from the Bible to be covered by the series is The Walls of Jericho (1967), but crucially here the scientists are transported to their next adventure before the walls of the city come tumbling down.

    A different appraoch is that of Joshua at Jericho (dir. James L. Conway, 1978) from the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series which significantly distorts the biblical text to make the divinely sanctioned violence less unpalatable. Jericho is "controlled by ruthless Hittites" who commit human sacrifices; various ethically dubious acts occur inside the city; Jericho's pudgy king is childish, whining and irritating, whilst the head of his army is proud, stubborn and arrogant. There's even a scene where the Hittites steal the Israelites' children in order to sacrifice them to their gods. In essence, the film does everything it possibly can to demonise the residents of Jericho and paint them in a negative light, such that it's almost impossible to feel sympathy for them.

    In contrast the episode Homeland (dir. Tony Mitchell, 2013) from the History Channel's dramatised series The Bible does not seem to find the idea of divine violence particularly troubling. Indeed, many other episodes in the series enhance existing violent elements in the various stories, or invent them where none is to be found in the text. Such invention is minimised in this episode however, normalising the actions of Joshua and his soldiers. It also emphasises God's role in the city's destruction, not only sending an angel to inform Joshua of his mission, but also heavily use of special effects as Jericho's walls come tumbling down. Joshua himself is portrayed as an affable, calm and approachable general.

    Surprisingly given the subject matter there are also several animated versions of the story including those from The Greatest Heroes and Legends in the Bible series narrated by Charlton Heston's voice, Hannah-Barbera's Greatest Adventure Stories of the Bible, the Beginners Bible, an entry from the "Bible Stories for Children" series called Joshua and the Promised Land and Veggie Tales' version Josh and the Big Wall! (1997).

    There is a potential fourth approach which has not yet been tried, namely making a subversive version adaptation of this story, in a similar vein to Aronofsky's Noah, which portrays Joshua as a villain overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Canaanites. However, it would likely alienate a lot of the key target audience and given the furore around Noah and the fact that Joshua's story is less well known such an adaptation seems unlikely at the moment. Furthermore the most recent adaptation from The Bible series suggests that, far from finding Joshua's campaign in Canaan troubling, the likely target audience for a further adaptation of this story might find the violence more palatable than previous generations, rather than less.

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    Sunday, September 25, 2016

    Joshua the Conqueror (1958)

    Until recently there had been precious few films about Joshua, though for some reason when I wrote a previous post on the subject I forgot about this entry from the Living Bible Old Testament series. As I was researching for something else I'm writing at the moment I thought it was probably time I posted a few comments on it.

    As always the series plays things pretty straight. In this case however that makes this little film more distinctive as it's the only film which portrays any other incident from the Book of Joshua aside from the victory over Jericho.

    As you would expect the victory over Jericho is the film's high point, but it also manages to squeeze in other episodes such as the miraculous crossing of the River Jordan and Achan's sin and the resulting defeat to the army of Ai.

    These films are always low budget, and I generally avoid criticising a film for that alone, however here the "miraclous" crossing of the Jordan scene really does lack any imagination. One minute we're shown a swelling, fast-flowing river, then there's a cut to Joshua, a description of the miracle and then just a close up of some feet running over some rocks. I accept that the film would not be able to match DeMille level special effects, but if you read DeMille's autobiography there's a bit in it where he discusses how in order to make the effect look right in his 1923 The Ten Commandments the entire cast and crew spent a frentic few minutes gathering bits of seaweed to scatter on the ground to make it look realistic before the angle of the sun change too much. Three's no such attention to detail here such that low budget and low creativity really make the moment laughable.

    In contrast when the walls of Jericho come tumbling down there's at least some judicious cuts and thought that has gone into the process in order to make the equally low budget miracle at least look credible. It's still a little hard not to smile to oneself, but with so few versions of certain stories, where would we be without the Living Bible.

    One thing that is noticeable about the fall of Jericho is that, aside from Rahab (dressed in red) and her family, we never see another of the people of Jericho. The film narrates their slaughter, but keeps them off screen. This has the effect of hiding the faces of the victims, silencing their voices and making their destruction less troubling. To it's credit the film isn't at pains to demonise them, but it does marginalise their voice and prevent viewers from empathising with them.

    Finally, as I've already mentioned, this is the only film I know of which covers the incident where Achan steals some of the "devoted things" (7:1), angering God so much that he causes Israel to be defeated and then orders the Israelites stone/burn him to death. It's not hard to see why this incident might be excluded even for a team of filmmakers intent on trying adapting the Book of Joshua. Visualising it, however, only makes it seem all the harsher than reading it. I suppose though that this is the flip side of the criticism I levelled at the film not showing any dying Jericonians. Portraying Achan's brutal treatment does raise questions as to either the goodness of God's character, or the interpretation of how the vent has been recorded.

    Anyway here's a scene guide for the film. All references are from the book of Joshua:
    God’s Commission to Joshua (1:1-9)
    Spies sent to Jericho meet Rahab (2:1-24)
    Miraculous crossing of the Jordan (3:1-17; 4:10-18)
    12 Stones set up at Gilgal (4:1-9,19-24)
    Joshua’s Vision (5:13-15)
    Processions around Jericho (6:1-14)
    Fall of Jericho (6:15-25)
    Achan’s Sin (7:1,21)
    Defeat at Ai (7:2-5)
    Achan’s death (7:6-26)
    Joshua renews the covenant (8:30-35)
    Joshua’s farewell speech (23:1-24:28)
    Incidentally, I opened this by saying "until recently". The last few years have seen Joshua gaining higher profile than almost ever before, firstly with his escapades being covered in the History Channel's series The Bible and then with the character featuring in Exodus Gods and Kings.

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    Friday, September 09, 2016

    Ben-Hur (2016)

    Whilst it's only been six years since the story of Ben-Hur was last on our screens, it's been 57 years since it was playing in cinemas, so, given the huge success of that 1959 version - itself a remake of a remake - it was only a matter of time before someone adapted it for the big screen once again. After all, two scenes in particular have resulted in some spectacular set-pieces in previous adaptations without either the 1959 or the earlier 1925 version receiving such acclaim that no-one dares to to touch the source material again. In fact, as the shortest of the non-animated Ben-Hur adaptations, this version seems to pretty much revolve around these two set pieces.

    The episode for which Ben-Hur is now best known is the chariot race scene and that seems to have become the driving force (if you'll pardon the pun) behind many adaptations - early stage versions of the story had horses running on rollers, the first film adaptation way back in 1907, was little more than footage of a chariot race, and a recent "stage" version hired out the O2 arena in order to be able to have the race do laps around the auditorium.

    Here, once again, the chariot race dominates. The film opens on the starting line, with Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) taunting each other through gritted teeth. The film then goes into flashback mode, which is a nice little device, but does rather highlight the film's emphasis on the chariot race. This is further underlined when the it turns out that the point in time to which they go back is Judah and Messala racing horses eight years before. Then the two were on far friendlier terms - Messala had been adopted into Judah's family and the two very much see themselves as brothers, even if Messala occasionally points out that he is not really part of the family when it suits him.

    Indeed, as the opening scenes unfold it emerges that one of the ways in which it suited him to be not-a-part-of-the-family is his love for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). The film draws this out a little more than other adaptations - it's Judah and Tirzah's mother's objections to their attachment that drive Messala off to join the army. In one way this works well: it renders Tirzah a far more rounded and interesting character than in the 1959 version (true of all 3 female leads). Yet that brings with it a few complications as well. How did Tirzah feel whilst he was away? Did she write to him regularly in the same way her brother did?

    When Messala returns as a tribune he is far more concerned with his reunion with Judah than with his former love, but this is never really commented on. Perhaps we are meant to see his intimacy with Tirzah as the kind of youthful infatuation that this hard-hearted, career-driven soldier no longer has any time for. And of course, when Pilate is attacked by an injured zealot recovering in the Hur house, there's little reference to their previous tenderness. When Judah is sentenced to the galleys and told his mother and sister are being executed, for a moment I wondered if the more interesting story on a human level might be that of Tirzah rather than Judah. If only she also could have raced a chariot...

    But of course the camera chooses to follow Judah, who by now is symbolically tied to a yoke and falls at the feet of Jesus. This, in fact, is Judah's second encounter with the man from Nazareth, though both take place in Jerusalem. Shortly before Messala's return, Judah and his slave-turned-wife, Esther encountered Jesus in the marketplace. For some reason he'd set up a carpentry stall there, although the main thing he seemed to be building is a soap-box from which to preach his message of love. Then Judah shruged it off. He's not exactly an atheist - he had joined in with his family's generic, sort of Jewish, religious festival a few nights earlier, for example - but he didn't have much time for Jesus's calls to love his enemies ("If he’s already decided my path, how am I better off than a slave?").

    Yet now Judah is flat on his face on the road to the slave port and Jesus is pulling off a Jedi mind trick in order to give him a sip of water. This has always been a pivotal moment in Judah's story, and here it flashes back to him time and again, but it also proves pivotal for Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Whilst Judah is away she joins Jesus'movement (apparently two years before it even starts) and does good works amongst the poor. In contrast to Judah' mother and Tirzah, Esther is rather poorly sketched, despite having more screen time than either of them. Despite her desire to do good works she doesn't, for example, seem to have made any in roads into tracking the fate of her in laws, nor does she seem overly perturbed by her father's death. And ultimately despite spending half a decade following Jesus, she doesn't really have anything compelling to say about him.

    All of which leads us to the film's other set piece - the sea battle - and it's by far the film's most successful scene, defly combining horror, tension and excitement. The bravest, and most successful, decision that director Timur Bekmambetov makes is to leave his camera below deck for the entire fifteen minute sequence. This nicely captures the claustrophobia of the environment but it also allows the audience to share the slaves' disorientating experience - their knowledge of what is happening is fragmented and limited to the few words they overhear from above deck and what they can glance through the oar holes. They know they are in a battle, but it's a shock when they get rammed in the side by an enemy vessel. And whilst the way Judah somehow manages to free himself from the wreckage seems a little questionable, it actually improves upon the implausibility of the novel and subsequent adaptations on this point, even if it's a little convenient that he washes up on shore just a short distance away from a chariot racing expert/horse owner (Morgan Freeman).

    It's here that the movie makes quite a sizeable leap which results in Judah landing himself in his much desired a grudge match. The chariot race itself is exciting, even if the odd pan of the crowd is let down by some bad CGI. Again the camera stays close to the action. Whilst it doesn't surpass its predecessors there's some good work here, particularly the pacing, which is so critical to a scene like this, and some impressive camera angles.

    Another plus point is Pilate's presence at this "circus". There are some tenuous links between Pilate and the arena in Caesarea, which did host chariot racing during his governorship. What is particularly good is that the Pilate we encounter here is the kind of crude bloodthirsty thug that history suggests, rather than the mild-mannered philosopher of so many Jesus films. Pilate (Borgen's Pilou Asbæk) struggles to contain his excitement as the race progresses, blood is spilt and the bodies pile up. This isn't a man who would worry himself about executing a would-be messiah. (As a Borgen fan, it's also interesting watching Asbæk playing the top dog, rather than the pitt-bull like press secretary serving a middle of the road prime minister).

    Where the chariot scene does let itself down a bit, is the sight of Freeman's character Ilderim scurrying around shouting advice to his rider as he swishes by. It's unclear if this is because the filmmakers realised they hadn't given Judah long enough to become a credible charioteer, or because they want to remind the people at home about all the things that are about to prove dangerous in just a lap or two's time. Either way the idea that as Judah thundered past he would catch a single word of Ilderim's advice - over the roar of the crowd - is laughable and detracts from what is otherwise a decent action scene.

    The other problem with the scene is something that is so typical of all the films in general, and indeed all of the biblical films that Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have produced; their tendency to ramp everything up to the point of crassness. So Judah can't just win the race, he has to win his first ever race, against Rome's greatest and unbeaten champion, despite getting knocked out of his chariot and dragged along the floor for half a lap and managing just to cross the line before his chariot crashes and his horses all die. Some of that is drawn from the novel, but time and again the pair's productions push things far further than their source material, draining them of any subtlety and ensuring absolutely everyone in the audience is totally and completely aware of their point. Does Pilate need to have a brush with death near the start of the film? Get a zealot to shoot him with an arrow! Is Morgan Freeman good as dispensing wisdom? Have him offer a life lesson at every conceivable moment! Is this a tale of learning to forgive? Have Judah and Messala have a big hug and ride off into the sunset! Would more talented writers have stopped this repeated two-phase question/statement pattern I'm employing? No, do it more!...etc. etc.

    That said some of the usual weaknesses in Downey and Burnett's work do seem at least a little reined-in here, not least the level of violence which, for once, feels more or less in keeping with the source material. And I quite liked the handful of places at the start if the film where Judah is challenged about the fact that his rosy world view is at least partially dependent on his privileged position of wealth and power. When Judah gives Jesus the question above about "how am I better off than a slave?" Jesus comes right back at him with "Why don't you ask her?", the "her" in question being Judah's former-slave turned wife, Esther. Another time whilst citing what has happened to the fields his father owned as evidence of injustice he is asked, rather pointedly, "and who owned the fields before your father?" Then there's the zealot who tells Judah "You confuse peace with freedom”.

    This tendency to bring original and contemporary sounding dialogue into the film works rather well for the most part. After all Lew Wallace was hardly Shakespeare and the novel's prose is often leaden and turgid. The new dialogue often places Judah squarely in the middle between two more extreme and violent parties vying for control of Judea. It's unfortunate that the writing in the latter part of the film isn't as strong at the earlier part such that this, too, ends up also being a bit crass.

    And what of the portrayal of Jesus? In the run up to the film's release I have heard people say both that the film minimises the role of Jesus and that enhances it and curiously both perspectives are true. Given the film's condensed run-time the material needed considerable abridgement, and to that end excising the nativity and that oh-so-convenient reappearance of Balthasar years later, is a wise move. I also quite liked the brief shot of Gethsemane, which I don't recall from the previous adaptations, though it is in the novel.

    That said I've already highlighted a couple of areas where the portrayal of Jesus didn't really work for me, and though Judah undergoes a profound transformation at the foot of the cross, there's precious little indication as to what is occurring. As with other Downey/Burnett produced Bible films, I come away wondering what it was they were trying to say about Jesus. Is it simply that marketplace message of love for your enemies? Perhaps that in itself is actually enough.

    I think, though, that there are two reasons why the crucifixion scene didn't do much for me. The first is actually a fault of the novel: I've always found the healing of Judah's mother and sister a bit too convenient. Not only does the Bible fail to mention any healing miracles occurring during the crucifixion, but it's such a lame plot device. And speaking of lame why do Judah's mother and sister get healed whilst his 'brother' remains an amputee?

    But the other reason is that Jack Huston's performance as Judah is rather lacklustre. Whilst the filmmakers would have struggled to find a more similarly surnamed leading actor, Huston lacks Heston's intensity. There's a few lines in the film that suggest that Messala is struggling to emerge from his grandfather's shadow. Whilst Huston did some good work in Boardwalk Empire there's little here to suggest he is going to lose the 'grandson of John Huston' tag anytime soon.

    Fortunately, for much of the film Huston isn't required to do a great deal because the chariot race and, most notably, the sea-battle are two great set pieces. These, combined with the film's natural sense of urgency and rhythm, mean that, ultimately, watching the film is more like spending the day at the chariot racing than spending life in the galleys.

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    Wednesday, August 24, 2016

    The Young One (1960)

    I've been watching quite a bit of Luis Buñuel recently and just finished watching The Young One (1960). Without giving too much away a significant part of the plot hangs on the presence of a priest, which is noteworthy for two reasons.

    Firstly because Buñuel is so often seen as anti-clerical, but here, whilst not handling things exactly as we in the 21st century would perhaps hope, the priest is still a somewhat heroic figure, who achieves some good by risking at least his own reputation and perhaps even his life. There are odd and perhaps feeble aspects to him as well, but they serve to make him more human and realistic, rather than despicable. I'm reminded of the way that so many see Buñuel's critique of the priesthood/idealised religion as solely negative but here, this is a primarily positive impact. This rather bolsters my position on Nazarin (1959) which is that Nazarin is a three-dimensional impression of a religious leader - albeit a very flawed one.

    The other pint of interest here is that the actor playing the priest is none other than Claudio Brook who also starred in Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simón del desierto [Simon of the Desert] (1965) for Buñuel and then as Jesus in the Mexican Jesus film Jesús, nuestro Señor (1969). Simón del desierto is next in my next destination for my Buñuel journey and I really must get around to seeing (and reviewing) Jesús, nuestro Señor sometime soon.

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    Tuesday, August 23, 2016

    Book Review: Bigger than Ben-Hur
    The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences

    Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences
    Edited by Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir

    Syracuse University Press
    269 pages
    ISBN 978-0815634034 (Paperback)

    With the latest cinematic version of in cinemas at the moment, readers might be interested to read Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir's "Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences, which looks at the forerunners to the latest version, from the book, through stage plays to some of the other filmed versions, including Fred Niblo's 1925 silent movie and the, now more famous, 1959 adaptation, directed by William Wyler. (See all my Ben-Hur related posts)

    There's a good range of experts here from Ancient World in film scholars such as Jon Solomon, whose work will be familiar to many readers here, through to historians such as Eran Shalev. As Ryan and Shamir put it in their introduction "They offer insights to students of popular Christianity and Judaism; to scholars of reading, reception and fandom; to those who investigate the a United States' sense of the Middle East and of Zionism; to researchers who probe the intersection of education and entertainment on stage and on screen; to chroniclers of ways of imaging Jesus Christ, femme fatales, and masculine performance" (p.2) Certainly it's interesting reading scholars from different pools coming together to offer their own insights on different facets of the phenomenon that is all things Ben-Hur.

    The book's subtitle suggests a two or three fold division between the book and its adaptations (and their audiences) but in fact things are much more fluid than that. Whilst Eran Shalev in the book's first main chapter, "Ben-Hur's and America's Rome: From Virtuous Republic to Tyrannous Empire" restricts herself to the book, some of its forerunners and the changes in cultural context in the century or so before the books release, other chapters are content to switch from talking about the book to talking about one of the stage or screen adaptations. Despite Milette Shamir's "Ben-Hur's Mother: Narrative Time, Nostalgia, and Progress in the Protestant Historical Romance" being only the second chapter it ends with a coda reflecting on how the subsequent 1925 and 1959 film adaptations built on the book's portrayals of women as discussed in the rest of the chapter (pp.50-51).

    Not dissimilarly whilst the primary thrust of the first four chapters is to explore key issues relating to the book, both chapters three ("Retelling and Untelling the Christmas story: Ben-Hur, Uncle Midas, and the Sunday-School Movement" by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall) and four ("Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" by Hilton Obenzinger) touch on screen adaptations. Obenzinger offers some interesting observations on Wylers mise en scène in the 1959 film and Gatrall discusses the portrayals of Jesus in the 1925, 1959 & 2010 versions (pp.71-72).

    Indeed whilst various essays mention the 2010 Television adaptation in passing (pp.xi,14 and 181) Gatrall is the only one to offer any brief analysis of it. This is something of a strange omission, not least given that the book has ended up as a part of the "Television and Popular Culture" series. Whilst the 2010 adaptation ultimately reached only a limited audience, it would have been nice to see some more, in depth analysis of it.

    The impression left by this omission is that diverse and developing Ben-Hur tradition ground to a halt shortly after 1959, rather than being something that continues to evolve. Similarly the 1988 animated version and the recent arena adaptation (p.14), complete with it's own chariot race round the venue's massive internal space, are important continuity markers in this developing tradition but are again, largely overlooked. This is particularly disappointing given Ryan and Shamir's excellent observation in their introduction that "As each Ben-Hur builds on the last, and strives to top it, the results move ever further from Wallace's years of study toward treating his fiction as an historical narrative to rework." (p.14). It certainly raises the question of how this is true for the biblical epic genre in general and the distance between adapting the text and seeking to outdo previous epic movie for size and spectacle grows and grows.

    Whilst more recent film adaptations of biblical narratives might, at first, appear a far cry from the book's next chapter ("In the Service of Christianity: Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theatre, 1899-1929" by Howard Miller), it could hardly be more relevant. Miller details the extensive marketing strategy utilised by the stage-show's producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in order to promote their film to the widest possible audience. Klaw and Erlanger realised that the key to making a strong return on what was a hefty financial investment was to entice the devout Protestant / Evangelical population to overcome their principled objections to the theatre as a whole.

    Miller's account will resonate with anyone who has watched the marketing of faith-based films from The Passion of the Christ through to Timur Bekmambetov's latest cinematic adaptation of Ben-Hur (2016). The tactics used, reassurances provided, endorsements given and success achieved are eerily familiar and whilst no film has since come close to reproducing the success of The Passion, it seems that much of the tickets sales the various biblical films have achieved in the intervening period, has been due, in part to production companies employing these tactics.

    Chapters six to nine, then, deal with the film adaptations, though as with the first four chapters there's a good degree of discussion around the other, preceding, works. What's strangely absent, though is any substantial discussion of Kalem's 1907 film adaptation. Again a few of the chapters mention it in passing, it was after all a landmark case that cast it's shadow across all subsequent adaptations in general, but the collection of essays would feel more complete had there been a chapter on some aspect of this ill-fasted production. For example, Ryan and Shamir's introduction references Ted Hovet Jr.'s paper on "The Case of Kalem's Ben-Hur (1907)" (pp. 12-13). Whilst it may not have been possible to reproduce this particular essay, some analysis of the case and its enduring impact would have been most welcome.

    The four chapters begin instead with couple of essays on the 1925 film. In "June Matthis's Ben-Hur: A Tale of Corporate Change and the Decline of Woman's Influence in Hollywood", Thomas J. Slater details the way the movie's original producer and screenwriter, June Matthis, became a scapegoat (p.119) for the struggling production having been given an "impossible task". Matthis had previously enjoyed great success and her successor on Ben-Hur was given a far greater budget with which to create a profitable film. For Slater Matthis's tale is a microcosm of a wider trend that was happening in Hollywood at the time where the numbers of women in significant and influential positions declined substantially.

    It's a very interesting chapter, not least because Matthis struggled to find work at the same level from then onwards, despite the fact "the number of her productions and critical successes easily matched those of almost any male director of her era" (p.110). Indeed many today are surprised when they learn of the far greater levels of equality in the film industry in the first two decades of the twentieth century. My only quibble would be that as interesting as Slater's observations are, ultimately they are about a different film, that is a film that is not Niblo's 1925 Ben-Hur, but another film that, sadly, never got made.

    In contrast, Richard Walsh's "Getting Judas Right: The 1925 Ben-Hur as Jesus Film and Biblical Epic" focuses squarely on the final adaptation. Walsh points out the similarity between the two names Judah and Judas - effectively "English versions of the same Hebrew name" (p.125). Walsh's point is that Niblo's film "'gets Judas right' by offering an empathetic, modern account of Judah/Judas" (p.136).

    The key similarity between the Judas of most Jesus films and the Judah of Niblo's film is the way Judas is often portrayed as a revolutionary trying to raise an army to overthrow Rome. A similar subplot features in both Wallace's novel and Niblo's 1925 adaptation (though not in Wyler's). The pivotal contrast however is that whereas in the Jesus films judas carries on trying to force Jesus' hand, in Ben-Hur (1925) Judah submits his rebellion to the will of Jesus and halts the revolt. The chapter also contains a table comparing the novel, Klaw and Erlanger's play and both film adaptations (p.128-131).

    The following chapter is Ryan's own "Take Up The White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur". Ryan investigates the ways in which a John Buchan's 1941 novel "Sick Heart River" resists "Ben-Hur" as well demonstrating that "some Christians have trouble seeing Jesus as Jewish (p.143). Rather than being about either film in particular it focuses on the time between Niblo and Wyler's versions

    Whilst it raises some interesting points it does not, even by its own admission, "offer irrefutable evidence" of the link between the two novels (p.143). Personally I'd go further, far from being "irrefutable" the link seems rather tenuous, and very little evidence for it is offered. This isn't to say the hypothesis isn't interesting and it's good to have a chapter chronicling some of the dissent to Wallace's novel in contrast to overall positive reception by the Christian community.

    This leaves the only essay primarily about the 1959 adaptation, which will, of course, be the first access point to the 'Ben-Hur tradition' Ina Rae Hark's "The Erotics of the Galley Slave: Male Desire and Christian Sacrifice in the 1959 a Film Version of Ben-Hur". This offers a closer inspection of Wyler's film, in particular how it makes Judah "an erotic spectacle and attracts the desiring gazes of other men in the film" (p.178). In doing so, Hark observes how doing this is effectively "deflecting Christ's eroticism" (p.166) as well as delineating the complex network of "fathers and sons" that the story presents"

    So much has been said about Wyler's film, not least in the volume in question, that it's good to have an essay that covers the film in detail, but from a specific angle, albeit one that is mentioned at several other points in the book. As Wyler expert Neil Sinyard points out in the foreword, the film's "homoerotic subtext" overcomes the problem inherent in the novel of how to "explain the motivation behind Messala's malicious treatment of his firmer close friend" (p.xv).

    As someone approaching the subject from the discipline of film rather than literature it would also have been good to have heard a little more from Sinyard whose recent book "A Wonderful Heart: The Films of William Wyler" (2013) is amongst those seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of as one of the finest American directors. He offers some great insights here.

    The tenth chapter, David Mayer's "Challenging a Default Ben-Hur: A Wish List" hopes to persuade future adaptations to rehabilitate several aspects of the novel that all of the previous screen adaptations have overlooked. The first is to ask for a bigger focus on the investment skills of Simonides and Malluch whose wise investments mean that towards the end of the novel Judah Ben-Hur has become one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. The other main area Mayer puts on his wish list is the character of Ira, the "adventuress" who is absent from screen productions ("deliberately pushed aside" p.186). This daughter of the wise man Balthasar contrast strongly with the three other female principals, Judah's mother, sister and wife (Esther) and their seemingly infallible purity.

    Finally Jon Solomon's quirky, yet illuminating "Coda: A Timeline of Ben-Hur Companies, a Brands and Products" forces home the extent to which the name Ben-Hur has far outgrown the significance of Wallace's fairly unremarkable novel. As well providing a little light relief it also amply illustrates the breadth of the impact the novel has had from its initial publication in 1880 to the present day. There's also an additional list of various aspects of Ben-Hur paraphernalia and places that gave been named after it on page 4. Evidence indeed that the 'Ben-Hur tradition' has truly become far, far "bigger than Ben-Hur".

    Ryan and Shamir have pulled together an interesting collections of essays, which will particularly appeal to those who have already studied some more introductory literature on the book or its various adaptations. Overall it's good that they don't spend long retreading basic analysis, particularly given that space is always at a premium. Whilst above I've suggested certain aspects that perhaps ought to have been covered by this volume, I do concede that space is nearly always limited. And the two editors manage to strike a good balance between avoiding tedious repetition from essay to essay, but managing to give the impression of collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas from the impressive range of disciplines represented by this enjoyable book.

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    Saturday, August 06, 2016

    The Shadow of Nazareth (1913)

    Shadow of Nazareth is unusual amongst Jesus films because it sits, somewhat awkwardly between films that are primarily about Jesus, and those where Jesus is a peripheral player, making the odd cameo appearance in an occasional scene.

    The opening credits give us a clue - only the actors playing Barabbas and the fictional Judith Iscariot (sister of Jesus' infamous betrayer) are named. Instead of the focus being Jesus it is on these two, whose role and relationship with Judas are pivotal in the events leading to Jesus's death. Jesus himself is a principal, but in terms of screen time he is far from the lead.

    Whilst the full film runs to only a little over 30 minutes, it manages to include a reasonably complicated plot. Judith is very much the principal character, with whom not only Barabbas, but also a pharisee called Gabrias as well as Caiaphas are in love. An altercation between the three men results in both Barabbas and Caiaphas stabbing Gabrias, and then to further blacken the high priest's character he has Barabbas arrested for the murder. 18 months later and Caiaphas decides that the now imprisoned Barabbas is less of a threat than Jesus and so he persuades Judith to convince Judas to betray him. Jesus is condemned, Judas hangs himself and the liberated Barabbas heads to the nearest tavern.

    That scene instantly reminded me of a similar one from Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961)  starring Anthony Quinn. Quinn returns from his ordeal confused but joyful, that is until he spies the now condemned Jesus dragging his cross past the inn's window. His mood darkens instantly. Whilst this later film lacks an obvious homage shot a combination of the actor's demeanour, the joyous bunch of Barabbas's friends surrounding him and the tavern location suggest a certain degree of connectivity.

    Given the antiquity of this film, and the almost 50 year gap between the two it's perhaps unlikely that the Quinn film was directly influenced by Shadow. However, according to Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, there is another connection between the two films.1

    Whilst it is uncredited, the plot for the film, right down to the inclusion of a character named Judith of Nazareth, is taken from an 1893 novel "Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy" by Marie Correlli. The lack of acknowledgement for Correlli's novel is all the more interesting given the, then still recent, verdict against the producers of the 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur. In that case the film used the novel's title, but was little more than a set up for a glorified chariot race. Shadow of Nazareth seems to have escaped any such censure so it's curious that not only did the filmmakers think the way to stay on the right side of this ruling was to use the plot but not the title, but that they also got away with it.

    Correlli's novel was "a spectacular commercial success" in its own day, being "published in fifty-four editions...and...translated into over forty languages".2, so it's not not unlikely that it influenced Pär Lagerkvist when he wrote his 1950 novel "Barabbas" and perhaps the similarity stems from there. However neither Burnette-Bletsch nor Larry Kreitzer3, who writes about Fleischer's adaptation of Lagerkvist's novel, mention the link. Curiously though Kreitzer does discuss a more recent work on Barabbas, Gerd Thiessen's piece of narrative exegesis "The Shadow of the Galilean".4

    Given the ready made audience for this film, then, it's perhaps not surprising that Shadow of Nazareth performed fairly well. It was slated by many critics, and there is a certain self-seriousness about it, but whilst the film didn't make the link to the novel explicit, its fans nevertheless appear to have turned out to see the film version. There are a couple of nice shots, notably the one captured above which works far better as a moving shot than as a still, though several compound bad composition with over zealous cropping. There are also a few bits of symbolism and imagery, most notably the cross shaped twig that a repentant Judith finds in the garden where Judas has hanged himself, and of a cross symbol being imposed at the front of one shot. This was three years before Griffith would do something similar in Intolerance.

    It could I suppose, be argued that, like this film, Griffith's film's comparatively short treatment of his Jerusalem story is another example of Jesus as a minor principal. Not dissimilar in this respect was L'Aveugle de Jérusalem four years before in 1909. Yet in the modern era there have been very few such films. Perhaps the closest is this year's Risen though there Jesus becomes more and more central as the film progresses, not unlike The Third Man's Harry Lime.

    It's hard to escape the feeling that the disappearance of this cinema of the religious middle ground is the result of market economics coming more to the fore as producers became more sure footed in their understanding of different audiences, perhaps particularly in the context of evolving secularisation and a growing polarisation between those of faith and those without. Over time audiences have separated out into a segment of practising Christians who want to watch filmmakers adapt the Bible, and the rest of society, or at least the portion who want to just enjoy the spectacle and excess of the epic genre without the pluses and minuses that religion brings with it. Films like Risen are perhaps an attempt to build a bridge between the two groups: it's failure at the box office suggests that much has changed since 1913.

    Whilst the entire film is not currently available outside of film archives, the first reel is available to view at archive.org

    1 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. "The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.132-157
    2 - Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda. The Shadow of Nazareth: The Hermeneutics of an Unauthorized Adaptation" in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016). p.140
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J., "The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow." (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). p.67-87
    4 - Thiessen, Gerd. "The Shadow of the Galilean" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987) and subsequent reprints.

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    Wednesday, August 03, 2016

    Slaves of Babylon (1953)

    Despite having been the subject of some of the very earliest Bible films, the various stories from the Book of Daniel rather fell from favour, to the extent that Slaves of Babylon is the only feature length take on one of the Israel's most iconic prophets (barring a handful of operas and musicals). Even on this occasion the filmmakers didn't take a huge amount of interest in the biblical subject matter and instead shift the focus to a fictional character called Nahum (Richard Conte). Nahum is one of the more rebellious Jewish slaves in post-exilic Babylon and so, after a couple of early skirmishes with the Babylonian authorities, Daniel sends to convey God's message to Cyrus (Terry Kilburn).

    By this stage Daniel (Jewish actor Maurice Schwartz who would also feature in Salome in the same year) is now getting on in years and perhaps, given the filmmakers were clearly happy to use creative licence with the text, it might have been better to have been more relaxed on this point and create an all round action hero than to introduce a whole new character who inevitably steals the show. Nahum's mission is to find Cyrus who at this point is still just a shepherd, convince him of his divine mandate, teach him in the art of becoming a king, manage his campaign to make him and lead his attack on Babylon.

    Various obstacles stand in Cyrus's way, not least and attempted assassination at the hands of a exotic dancer played by future Catwoman Julie Newmar who uses her feline charms to attempt to take Cyrus' life. It's a plan that not even Newmar's most famous role would have dared to pull off and is thwarted by the ever alert Nahum. Cyrus does seem to have an eye for the ladies though and his obsession with Linda Christian's princess does rather distract him from the task at hand.

    Interspersed with this main plot are various stories from the early part of the Book of Daniel, his night, unharmed in the lion's den; Nebuchadnezzar's madness resulting in him eating grass; and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being saved from the flames of the furnace. And of course there's the pivotal moment where Belshazzar's feast is interrupted by a giant hand writing "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" on the walls of the banquet hall to prophesy his downfall. The special effects leave something to be desired - this latter scene relying on broadly the same technique (projection) as Pathé's Le Festin de Balthazar from 1905).

    One of the episodes from the Book of Daniel that the film does leave out is the story about how Daniel and his colleagues choose not to eat the Babylonian's food, opting instead for a diet based largely on vegetables. It's not a story rich in dramatic potential, but it does really set Daniel and his friends apart from modern Christians. The film's costume design does place a very prominent Star of David across Daniel's chest, but otherwise Daniel is not particularly Jewish (as opposed to proto-Christian). But then also missing is the incident where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue and none of his advisers can decipher it. None, that is, except, Daniel. It's perhaps not surprising that the second half of the Book of Daniel - the apocalyptic part - is absent, but this first omission does rather strip him of the gift that caused him to rise to prominence in the first place - the gift of interpreting dreams.

    Whilst Slaves of Babylon was the product of a major studio (Columbia) it's fairly low budget and it shows. None of the male stars have any charisma, though Christian and Newmar do make up for the deficit to some extent, and whilst the plot adds a little excitement and allows a more tangential exploration of the story, it ends up compressing both stories so much that neither retains that much interest.

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