• Bible Films Blog

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


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    Matt Page
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    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982)

    Just as the surprise success of The Passion of the Christ inspired various producers to give the green light to a number of Bible films, a generation before another surprisingly successful Bible film also inspired a handful of copy-cat pictures. Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) may have been a comedy, and may have caused a stir upon its release, but when it performed well at the box office (returning almost $20 million on production costs of around £3 million) it inspired other film-makers to follow suit.

    The following year saw the release of the hastily made Wholly Moses. Like Brian it starred a Footlights Cambridge graduate (Dudley Moore) as Herschel, whose life strangely parallels the life of a biblical character. Despite Moore being in the middle of a gold streak - with the film being made between his big successes 10 and Arthur, the film flopped and deservedly so. Lacking both originality and wit it tried to reproduce the success of Brian with the minimum amount of effort. It failed.

    Less well known was a French film made two years later in 1982. Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (A Quarter to Two Before Jesus Christ, or 1:45 BC) opted for a more original plot, ditching any biblical parallels, and focussed more on a pastiche of the biblical epics of the 50s and 60s. This had also been part of the intention with Brian - although the link between the "I'm Brian and so's my wife" scene and Spartacus is lost on many - but here it's much more upfront and more to do with epic films in general than specifically skewering Jesus films like The Greatest Story Ever Told. So Taylor and Burton's Cleopatra is very much to the fore, as are some of the gladiator films such as Barabbas and Androcles and the Lion and, of course, Spartacus.

    But the film that is perhaps most clearly referenced is Ben Hur (1959); indeed the film's hero is even named Ben-Hur Marcel (played by Coluche). Ben-Hur Marcel is an ordinary worked, but one day his anger about his working conditions and pay end up with his leading a crowd to protest to Caesar. When the rest of the crowd edges away, Marcel is taken into custody, bound for the Colosseum. But , desperate for spies, one of Rome's commanders frees him so that he can visit the catacombs and keep an eye out for spies and plotters. Somehow however he ends up in a gay bar in the catacombs and unbeknownst to him ends up chatting up a disguised Caesar. When he tells the disguised Caesar about his plans, he is again sent to the waiting bays in the Colosseum, only to be freed again by Cleopatra who is convinced he is her long lost brother.

    Whilst the film is clearly bot on a par with the humour of the incomparable Life of Brian I'm reluctant to judge it to heavily given the differences between French and English humour. Nevertheless there were a few bits where the humour survived the subtitling. Caesar and Ben-Hur getting their wires crossed at the aforementioned bar landed somewhere between the Carry On films and a sketch from the Two Ronnies. There are a number of deliberate anachronisms which are played for laughs and well as more biting satire around advertising. And there's the multiple repetitions of the same amusing sounding phrases which works so well in Denys Arcand's Decline of the American Empire

    But in the final act, the humour turns in a more biting, satirical, direction, as the deliberate anachronisms are used to mock modern day targets. Of course this is also very much in view in the Pythons' film which mocked the disintegration of the left wing into dissident splinter groups. Given the political machinations which are emerging as voting for the Labour party's leadership election gets under-way. Likewise Deux heures manages to nail contemporary targets but still remain fresh a generations later, so jokes about sports advertising, fear of offending the energy rich Saudis and unions protesting in the face of implacable union cut backs. This is all the more impressive as many comedic films sacrifice laughs in the final act for the sake of completing a satisfactory narrative. Here the film manages to be its most coherent and its most on-target.

    Eventually the film tries to echo Brian life-affirming nihilism. "Since we're all shit, why fight?" asks the huge crowd. It's unlikely to have featured in as many funerals as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" but its sentiment is not so very far away.

    With everyone having made their peace the previously opposing groups all settle down to an after-gladiatorial-show party. There, among the many novelties, is a television playing a news report. And the lead story? A census in Bethlehem has led to massive overcrowding. The news item goes on to focus on a lady who has given birth to her son in a stable. The guests are dismissive ("A kid born in a stable, big deal") but of course their way of life would ultimately be swept away by the kid in the stable.

    It's one last barb, this time at the film's audience, who may, through the epic films, watch the events of the Bible unfold on our screens, but often carry on unaffected by what we see.

    Whilst the humour is often quite pointed it's not really side-splittingly funny. Whilst it adopts so many of the traits of Life of Brian, the spoofing of the epics, the satire on contemporary events, the absurdity mixed up with seriousness and the attempt to land on something more positively humanistic, it never manages to be as hilarious as its predecessor. Late on in the film ons of the characters suggests we'll "still be laughing in the 20th century". Sadly that's not quite as true as it might have been.

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    Tuesday, August 18, 2015

    Battleship Potemkin in Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew

    On Sunday we held an outdoor silent film night and we watched Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. It was the first time I had seen the film and enjoyed finally seeing such a well-renown film and finding it matching up to its reputation. I could probably write a great deal about it, given the time, but for now I'll restrict myself to the observation that is most pertinent to this blog, namely how it relates to Pasolini's 1964 Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Saint Matthew).

    Pasolini was, as is often noted, a Marxist, and many commentators note the ways that he portrays Jesus as some kind of revolutionary leader. One of the other main things that is frequently discussed about his Jesus film is the eclectic mix of songs on the soundtrack. Strangely, though, I don't recall anyone ever mentioning how Pasolini includes one of the key pieces of music from the film's original score in Il Vangelo, particularly as it appears at such moment to make it clear it's a reference.*

    For those unfamiliar with Battleship Potemkin I should explain that it's a Soviet propaganda piece released to celebrate 20 years since the famous 1905 uprising of the crew of the titular vessel. In the film, at least, the person whose outcry starts the overthrow of the ship's oppressive leadership is one of only a few of his comrades killed in the battle that follows. There then follows a poignant scene where his body is brought to shore and the people of Odessa form a mighty procession to mourn his passing and celebrate his sacrifice and denounce the oppressive authorities.

    Eisenstein apparently wanted a new score to be recorded ever ten years. The first was apparently uninspiring but one written the following year by Edmund Meisel, stuck, at least until 1950 when Nikolai Kryukov wrote a new one for the film's 25 year anniversary. More recently a whole range of new scores have been written and performed for the film including ones by the Pet Shop Boys and, Roger Ebert's favourite version, Concrete. But, effectively, it's Miesel's version that is considered the "original" and, significantly, it's the only one that the BFI included in their recent Bluray release. (There's a nice piece on Miesel's and Kryukov's scores here by S. Lopez Figueroa).

    So it's interesting that Pasolini takes this music and uses it to accompany a few scenes of Jesus gaining widespread popularity whilst preaching his seven woes against the Jewish authorities. Like Battleship Potemkin there are scenes of swelling crowds with sometimes people rushing to join the throng, others being more reflective. Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees links to the angery speeches made against the Russian authorities.

    Whilst a few of the shots are formally reminiscent of Eisenstein's (such as the one above compared to the ones from Potemkin below), it's much more the overall impression from a sequence of similar shots, aided, at least for modern viewers, by the fact both films are in black and white, but more to do with the movement of people and the camera, the close ups, the expressions and so on. And of course it's the identical music.

    [Shazaming Pasolini's version of it brought up "La chanson des martyrs" (The song of the martyrs) from the album "Les Choeurs de L'Armée Rouge" (Choir of The Red Army) by Boris Alexandrov, but the dearth of any further information elsewhere suggests it was original to Meisel.]
    But as well as this being the moment when Jesus is at his most revolutionary, it's also the moment when its starts to look like his demise is imminent. So the music links him to the Russian revolutionary seaman Vakulinchuk who loses his life in the fight for freedom and the audience knows that Jesus' life will be similarly lost.

    Watching the scenes from Pasolni's film again, I'm also struck by the way the Roman soldiers appear in the scene. In almost all Jesus films the soldiers are the enemy, usually totally dehumanised, barring the centurion who will convert as Jesus dies. But the rank and file are usually presented as little more than cogs in the machine that will ultimately crush this Jewish saviour. Pasolini's film does particularly develop these soldiers into three dimensional characters.

    Apart from anything the nature of the project leaves them no dialogue, but they are significantly more sympathetic here than in most films. And I think that rests as much on these scenes as anything. Jesus is preaching revolution and the soldiers are happy to let it go on, interested, even, in what is being said. And in the light of Eisenstein's film this becomes a little more obvious why. Pasolini's portrayal is not because they, like him, is Italian. It's because they, like his heroes, are part of the proletariat. Indeed in Eisenstein's film it is the fighting men of the navy who first rise up. Jesus' revolutionary message, then, is for them and indeed to Pasolini they are part of the crowd rather than just a means to control it.

    Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that this connection is overlooked. Not only are the majority of those studying Jesus and film from the theology side of the equation, rather than the film studies, but also it's worth remembering when Pasolini's film was released. In 1964 (or 1966 in the US), the Cold War was at its peak. McCarthyism had reached its zenith in the previous decade and the ban on Battleship Potemkin in the UK had only been lifted because its widespread distribution was seen as unviable.

    I think it is very significant though. To any film student, least of all an avowed Marxist, Battleship Potemkin is a critical film. And Pasolini's link with it is deliberate and full of meaning.

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    *I must confess this statement is built on combination of recollection, Googling and checking the key books on the subject. I'm sure someone has made the connection before. I just don't recall anyone saying it and it appears (from an admittedly briefish scan) that not one of Babbington, Evans, Stern, Jefford, Debona, Walsh, Tatum, Reinhartz or Baugh mention it in their tomes.

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    Friday, August 07, 2015

    How the Internet Revolutionised the Bible-and-Film

    Occasionally I’ve had the pleasure of talking with those who used to study the Bible on Film in the 80s and early 90s and it’s clear that this was a vastly different time to today. One thing is certain: the internet has revolutionised the study of film and religion.

    Despite those fleeting conversations, I’m somewhat lacking in a point of comparison as my own studies in this area only really began around 1999 and by then the internet revolution was certainly well under way. I recall using a site I’d heard a little bit about called Amazon* to get hold of, what I then considered obscure, old Jesus films like King of Kings (1961)

    Indeed one of the main ways that the internet has changed study of film and theology is that it has made a far greater range of films readily available. I would have been fortunate to ever have happened upon King of Kings in a shop (though it did happen two years later), but here I could order it at a click of a button. As things have progressed far more films have become available on Amazon and importing films from other countries through Amazon has become far simpler.

    This convenience has led to more people wanting such films creating more demand, which has, in turn, allowed a greater number of film releases to be viable. Better communications and infrastructure have radically improved the numbers of titles those studying in the field can access. Furthermore, film-collectors have been able to exchange unreleased movies and many films are available on sites such as YouTube*.

    A further development from this is that now filmmakers are also able to sell to their audience directly, with no need to work through studios, distributors and other historic channels. Releasing straight to DVD and selling them direct through a website has become evermore popular. Indeed a more recent development is crowdfunding where filmmakers try and get a broad base of low value investors to invest before films are made, and whilst not many films have made it through to the final stage of this, churches and religious organisations have certainly been a popular target market for “grassroots” marketing campaigns run primarily through the web.

    Even more mainstream films now use the web to build awareness, well in advance, of their product’s release. This has meant that discussion about a film has begun well in advance, with news about casting, directors’ and writers’ previous work, filming locations and even (in some cases) parts of the script, all being dissected months before the opening night. Scholars have been able to look for likely patterns and themes that a filmmaker might continue to explore in the new movie.

    In part this has been possible due to other new internet initiatives such as the Internet Movie Database* (IMDb for short). Prior to the emergence of the web, viewers would have to rely on their memories combined with trawling through written lists of cast and crew from a diverse and disparate range of sources. Now the IMDb makes all this possible at a click of a button. It’s easy to look up, say, a director’s previous work and identify patterns, or interests. It also provides a variety of other information about a film, again in fashion that is extremely simple to access. Other also provide more detailed information on how popular a film is with the paying public (such as sites Box Office Mojo*) or with critics (Rotten Tomatoes*) providing a vital resource for those interested in reception studies.

    There’s one other area which has been significant in the blossoming in the study of film and religion and that’s online discussion. Discussion fora and blogs have democratised the discussion allowing anyone to have their say. Whilst the comments in threads on YouTube highlight the significant downsides of this new democracy, more formal, and well-moderated discussion forums have provided a fruitful source of discussion. These have been particularly beneficial in interdisciplinary areas such as film and religion as they allow experts from either field to cross-pollinate sharing their expertise and learning from the insights of others. Film studies experts, who may have a passing interest in religion due to their own faith, can fly the flag for some of the great directors and highlight how certain films relate to others. Previously, few people in a theology department had much of a knowledge of the neo-realist movement that so informed Pier Paolo Pasolini for example. Conversely, biblical scholars with a bit of a fondness for the cinema could bring their theological expertise to the table. Not many film students had a sufficiently deep grounding in Gnosticism to appreciate its expression in The Matrix.

    Films discussion fora such as Arts and Faith* have enabled this rubbing shoulders and cross-pollination of ideas to proliferate, introducing new cinematic movements and theological ideas to those who were previously unfamiliar with them. It’s resulted in a great deal of growth on both sides of the divide - indeed it has ceased to be a divide.

    To a lesser extent, this has also happened with weblogs, particularly with scholars able to respond to one another in a longer more considered form than in off-the-cuff comments, but far swifter than by publishing papers in journals or delivering them at conferences. Blogs have also enabled scholars to plough their very specific furrows, being able to find a wider audience for their specific niche than was ever possible prior to the popularisation of the internet. Furthermore self-publishing on a blog has enabled scholars to either make their ideas available to the public for free (in contrast with paid for journals - a significant barrier to those outside of academia), or even, as scholars such as Bart Ehrman* have shown, to generate a small income for their toil. Whilst there is a still, in some circles, a strange dedication to words written on dead tree, in many circles ideas are now assessed based on their own merit, rather than on the format in which it has been published, or the qualifications of the writer. Proper formal training and peer review still bring significant benefits, of course, but this new context has enabled more voices and their work and ideas to be judged on merit.

    The result of these changes - a wider, more available, range of films; more efficient resources for studying both the Bible and cinema; an inter-disciplinary, and less-exclusive sharing of ideas - has transformed the study of religion and film seeing a proliferation of books published on the subject, conference papers, blogs, journal articles, podcasts, university courses and so on. But hopefully it’s not just about output. Hopefully the explosion in this field has also enabled us to understand the human condition with far greater depth and appreciation for who we are.

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    *Other websites attempting to do the same thing are available, although those quoted are considered to be the leader in their field.

    Sunday, August 02, 2015

    Su Re (The King, 2012)

    Giovanni Columbu’s Su Re was released with so little aplomb in 2012 that the majority of Jesus film commentators, including myself, seemed to completely miss it. It’s a quiet, humble, non-showy and ultimately low budget marketing strategy that is so typical of the film itself.

    Shot on the island of Sardinia, using hand-held cameras and putting the island’s stark and dramatic scenery to great effect, Columbu’s Jesus film looks quite unlike any before it. It’s a dirty, grubby film, brought out by graying filters and gritty filmstock. It’s not hard to imagine someone feeling forsaken here, least of all a peasant criminal about to be tortured to death by a bunch of men who haven’t seen a civilised home for years and for whom the sadistic sport of a good crucifixion is at least some sort of diversion.

    Like Pasolini before him, Columbu uses a cast of largely non-professional actors and who, whether for extra realism or for financial reasons, were told to bring along their own rough clothes for the “costumes”. Although some cloaks were provided, it’s unusual to see Jesus crucified in a pair of rough short trousers, at once both factually anachronistic, yet more truthful than decades of whitish loincloths. It’s the kind of move that you would expect to be glaring, but never really feels that out of place.

    Indeed what Columbu does so successfully despite, or perhaps even because of, such anachronisms, is build a world that feels credibly like the one in which Jesus may have inhabited. Recent Jesus films may have progressed from the pristine sixties crowds of extras, but the odd dab of dirty greasepaint has rarely gone more than skin deep, and even then it’s failed to hide pampered faces and persistently denticured teeth.

    The epitome of this approach is in Columbu’s choice of Fiorenzu Mattu to play Jesus. Christians have long debated whether the words from Isaiah 53:2, recited at the start of the film, meant that Jesus was ugly. There are all kinds of problems with that interpretation, but certainly Mattu fits more closely with the idea that there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”. I have no idea if Columbu is familiar with Colin Blakeley’s performance as Jesus in Son of Man (1969), but certainly that is the only Jesus film I can think of which doesn’t portray Jesus as lean and attractive.

    In using non-professional actors with real, unadorned faces Columbu is very much following in the footsteps of Pasolini, but the similarities go beyond that. Columbu includes all kinds of nods to his countryman’s famous hagiopic, from the use of the handheld camera to the composition of some of the shots, even down to come of the choices of headwear. Like Pasolini he dwells on close ups of faces, yet the person speaking is, not infrequently, off screen.

    Yet Pasolini is not the only director whose work is an apparent influence. The film’s slow, lingering pacing and absence of soundtrack is reminiscent of another Italian director’s work, Albert Serra’s El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008). Su Re is a meditative piece placing the viewer in the moment and involving him or her in proceedings rather than leaving them as an observer from a distance.

    One of the ways this is most noticeably achieved is by the use of non-linear narrative. Whilst Bible films often tinker with the chronology of certain events, that tends to be to merely moving the occasional scene out of order to improve the drama’s pacing. Here though the scenes are all jumbled up a la Pulp Fiction. The result is to transform a story which is known and familiar to its audience into something unpredictable and unsettling. It’s immediately disorientating to find the crucifixion featuring so early in the film, only to be followed up with one of the scenes that closely precedes it. The film jumps back and back and then forwards again, often revisiting the same scene from different perspectives.

    Some of the comments I read about this film before seeing it suggested it emphasised the differences in the gospels. However, this isn’t so much a deliberate contrasting of the scene in one gospel with the same scene in another; showing the cock crowing differing numbers of times, for example. No, it’s more in the process of retelling the same scene from different angles, or in a slightly different way. It doesn’t seem to go out of it’s way to stress the discontinuity; even less to slavish prioritise one gospel over the others. It’s more that narrative continuity itself doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. This, in itself, emphasises the shifting nature of gospel truth. The Bible doesn’t give us a single video camera perspective of what happens, it gives us different written accounts drawn from written and oral sources all of which bring with them their own interpretations and theology. In each gospel the sands have shifted slightly, not to reveal a radically different and contradictory new version of events, but just a different landscape upon which the events play out. Su Re isn’t a nit-picker led exposé: it just captures this story-like nature of the gospels.

    The sense of disorientation is also heightened by the way the different scenes segue into one another. It’s not always clear when one scene ends and a new one begins. This, combined with the way the film jumps back to slightly earlier scenes, gives a sense of a flashback, or accessing earlier memories, only we’re not just inside the head of one specific person. It highlights how the gospels were drawn, in part, from the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, whilst also immersing the viewer in the action on display. It's more an invitation to look at Jesus' last hours again, in a different light; to experience them as if you were present. The result is that, in contrast the overwhelming majority of Jesus films, Su Re doesn't seem to be pushing one particular idea about who Jesus is - it's very much left to the viewer's interpretation.

    This is possible, in part, because the film, in the tradition of the passion play, deals only with the events of Jesus' death. The miracles and his compassionate acts have largely been and gone, as has his teaching ministry. But perhaps the biggest difference between Su Re and other films in the passion play tradition is that Jesus seems far less in control of the events that are unfolding: Jesus never defiantly drags himself up in the middle of his scourging, nor does he speak to the authorities that are trying him with that knowing sense of confidence and certainty.

    The result is, perhaps for the first time in film, a focus on Jesus as a victim. Stripped of his prior ministry and his future glory we behold the man: forsaken, confused, scared and alone. Many will see that as weakness, forgetting, perhaps, the man in the olive grove sweating blood and praying desperately that this suffering be taken from him. It's rather familiar, however, to those well-versed in another part of Isaiah 53. "Oppressed...afflicted..like a lamb to the slaughter". Columbu's Jesus is an outsider, an unbeautiful victim deserted and discarded in an overlooked corner of the empire of Rome. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53 there is hope and a meaning to all we see here. But it should do us good to remember that at this point in Jesus' life, that may not readily have come to mind.

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    Tuesday, July 28, 2015

    Animated Stories from the Bible - Moses: From Birth to Burning Bush

    There are a lot of animated re-tellings of the story of Moses. More even, perhaps, that there are about Jesus. As a result, I've never really tried to track them all down,nevertheless, when I come across one, I'm usually pretty happy to take a look. This one was made in 1993 and is taken from the sister series to Richard Rich's Animated Stories from the New Testament. Once again it's Rich (The Fox and The Hound) at the helm here.

    And as Moses cartoons go, it's not bad. For a start there are no silly sidekicks or overly elaborate sub-plots, the story just sticks to its main focus and tells the story with a nice balance between economy and fleshing out the characters. A meal-time scene from Jethro's tent captures this approach nicely. The group holds hands for a pre-meal blessing - as is apparently the family's custom - but the way it's shown captures both the sense that this is a new custom for Moses, and that there is a spark of attraction between he and Zipporah.

    The biggest drawback with it, however, is that the story only goes as far as the burning bush. Whilst it's unclear why this happened, the most likely explanation is that Rich planned to return to the Exodus as later date, but never did. Given that the episodes from the New Testament series were produced over an 18 year period, that would hardly be surprising. But it does tend to leave the story hanging in mid air. Whilst an encounter with the divine has formed the climax to many a tale, it's always just a means to an end in the story of Moses.

    It's a shame that the rest of the story never got made however because there's an interesting premise here: In contrast to many versions of the story Moses, indeed everybody from the slaves to the Pharaoh, knows he is a Hebrew. The slaves criticise him for doing Pharaoh's dirty work. The overseers moan about having to work for a Hebrew ("I don't like it, a Hebrew ruling over us"), but broadly speaking there is no major problem with such a state of affairs, nothing to suggest this is totally out of the ordinary.

    The most interesting by product of this narrative stance is where it locates Moses' attitude to slavery. We tend to think of Moses as the first anti-slavery pioneer, but in fact the Torah not only accepts the existence of slaves but legislates for the situation. Here Moses is not troubled by the fact that Pharaoh uses slave labour, he's just cares more about how they are treated, increasing rations, ending beatings and allowing a sabbath.

    There's some nuance here as well. When making arguments for treating the slaves better to his fellow Egyptians his arguments are all based on capitalism and extracting the greatest benefit. "Treat them better" Moses says, gesturing towards the slaves "you'll have better workers". Privately, however, it's clear that whilst Moses thinks his economic arguments will prove to be the more persuasive, he is driven more by compassion describing a beaten Hebrew as "A man, a person, a living soul".

    Ultimately, however, that's an argument that never gets resolved. Moses kills an Egyptian and, when it becomes known, he is sentenced to death. The system, it seems, can tolerate an Israelite in power, but murdering an Egyptian, strips away any such privilege. Moses is foolhardy enough not to realise the bigger implications of his act. He fails to appreciate the meaning of crossing that particular line and it is only a moment of compassion from his adopted mother, and apparently good luck, that he manages to escape with his life.

    So whilst this is very much a film for children in terms of form there's a little bit more going on in terms of content and Rich's decision not to pander to the lowest common denominator by introducing twee quirkiness more than pays off.

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    Friday, July 24, 2015

    Su Re (2012; The King): A New(ish), Italian(ish), Jesus Film

    For a little while now, I've been meaning to post about a Jesus film, released back in 2012, by Sardinian director Giovanni Columbu

    Su Re (The King) debuted at the Turin Film Festival, but made a bit more of a splash when it was released at the Rotterdam Film Festival a few months later. There's a short write up of it on the festival's website. The festival also prompted an intriguing review from The Hollywood Reporter. It makes the obvious comparison with Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo and also with Albert Serra (whose Magi film Birdsong I greatly admire). Having seen a little of it, that's a comparison I can agree with. Here's one of the more intriguing parts of the review:
    We see no miracles, no supernatural trappings, no resurrection, no divine signs apart from some heavy rumbles of thunder and a medium-sized earth-tremor...

    Columbu's script, co-written with his brother Michele, consists of mainly short scenes taken from the four gospels, some of which diverge from or even contradict each other, but whose basic details are roughly similar.
    That chides with the Rotterdam's write up's comment that Columbu "takes his inspiration from the way in which the four Gospels provide different angles on the story". That comment is echoed in this brief summary from CPH PIX: "Referring to all four gospels, 'The King' highlights the differences between them...". There's also a reference there to Kurosawa's Rashomon, a film which I am yet to see (though, coincidentally, Kurosawa's The Idiot was the last film I finished watching) which has been echoed elsewhere as well.

    That site also contains some footage, and there are a few other bits and pieces on YouTube, four clips here and some "backstage" footage.

    In terms of getting your hands on it, it can be imported via Amazon, but the audio is only in Sardinian and the subtitles are only in Italian. That said, most of the footage appears to be from Jesus' last 24-48 hours so it's not hard to figure out what's going on and, as I'm learning Italian at the moment, I'm enjoying the challenge. Hopefully, I'll post my review shortly.

    HT Peter Chattaway.

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    Wednesday, June 03, 2015

    Background to The Miracle Maker


    Back in 2000-01 when The Miracle Maker first got released on VHS I managed to get hold of some form of special edition which also came with a novelized version of the book aimed at children. I always meant to read it and now that my own children are about the right age for it we recently sat down to read it together.

    Like most such books most of the dialogue comes straight from the script and the more descriptive passages are based solely on what we see on screen. However there are a few parts of the book, particularly in its second quarter, where the writer (Sally Humble-Jackson) adds a little flavour of her own.

    It's hard to know how authoritatively we should take such comments. Is Humble-Jackson fleshing out aspects of Murray Watts' original vision, or just using her own creative license? Nevertheless, as this is one film I've written quite a lot about I thought I would include a few aspects as interesting background.

    The one character whose story is enhanced here out more than any other is Matthew the Tax Collector, and Humble-Jackson provides most of the extra detail in Chapter 4, where Jesus calls Peter and Matthew either side of the miraculous catch of fish. The scene takes place at the port-side where Matthew is collecting taxes from those who pass, both Peter and his fellow fishermen and Mary Magdalene. Here are some of the excerpts from the start of the scene, before Jesus has encourage Peter to put his boat out again:
    The tax collectors had once been ordinary Jews, until the Romans gave them a job. Now they were seen as scum...

    ...Matthew, the tax collector, sighed. She'd crossed the border so she had to pay [Magdalene]. It wasn't his fault - he didn't make the rules...

    ...Matthew flinched. Was he to blame if the nets came up empty? 'It's the law' he tried to explain, over the din of the mad woman.
    Later Jesus begins to preach and catches Matthew's eye. "The tax collector's heart missed a beat. No-one ever met his eye". Then we're given this description:
    Matthew looked uneasily at the flimsy roof of his tax-booth. One day an angry fisherman was going to knock it to the ground. He imagined himself flying to the safety of a tree, high in the branches where nothing could hurt him. And then he closed his eyes and sighed. Who'd want him in their tree? No-one...
    Even from so far away Jesus could see the glitter of tears.
    Finally we come to Matthew's appointment.
    How he wished he'd never become a tax collector. Then he might have been able to look Jesus in the eye...Matthew began to shake. More insults, more anger.
    'Matthew,' called Jesus again, 'follow me!'
    Baffled, Matthew lifted his head. He looked Jesus in the eye. And what he saw there filled his heart with longing. All the things he'd done wrong...they didn't matter any more. His sins had been forgiven! Slowly he got to his feet. With trembling hands he threw down his money and went to Jesus' side.

    Matthew? The tax collector? The others were shocked - but when they saw the love in Jesus' eyes they felt ashamed of themselves.
    Now none of this goes against the scenes we see in the film, but it certainly offers more than is the film itself. And it's a really interesting exploration of the character's inner journey at this point.

    There's one other section that stood out for me, from the next chapter (five) concerning the extra-biblical villain Ben-Azra. Ben Azra is brought in to play a similar role to Zerah in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Livio in Jesus (1999) - the extra-biblical authority figure pulling all the strings in the background. And there's a little insight into his character as well:
    Ben Azra, for instance, had grown rich and powerful by helping the Romans keep the peace. He thought the people would tire of this magician from Nazareth, but as the months passed, the crowds just got bigger
    The detail about how Ben Azra had gained his wealth is a step beyond what we get from the film, though it's certainly a very reasonable step. It also contrasts with the above description of Matthew whose wealth had also come because he had sided with the Romans

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    Saturday, May 23, 2015

    Bible Films and the Roots of Cinema


    I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which cinema is like other art forms and how that leads to such a variety of different types of film. Indeed even in writing “film” in that last sentence made me think about how differently it would have sounded were I to have used “cinema” or “movie” instead.

    Much of this is down to cinema’s roots. Film grew out of the fertile ground of various established, and indeed emerging, art forms in the 19th century and as they have developed in throughout the 20th and 21st centuries they have influenced each other. Furthermore, those who see computer games as a new art form can point to the way in which it has grown out of film and continued to interact with it in ways that would have been hard to imagine 50 years ago.

    For me, I suppose, I grew up thinking of film as a variation on theatre. You might go and see a play, or you might film that play for a wider audience. Movies were about actors acting out a story. Perhaps related to that was film being an acted out version of literature. Indeed a friend of mine says for him, he had grown up thinking that way. Of ‘film’ as acted-out novels.

    However, from a technical angle, film is an extension of photography. Essentially it is a series of photographic images played in such quick succession that those images appear to be one moving image. And many of the concerns of photographers, and by extension cinematographers – thins such as composition and mise en scène are shared by painters.

    Regular readers of this blog will know I am a fan of silent cinema and looking at this over the last few years has made me realise one link I had not previously appreciated. Whilst we like to think of the great artists of cinema – including many in the silent period – film’s roots were, in reality far more low-brow. As much as we may like to think of film as being born out of a marriage between theatre and painting, it is indisputably the case that film’s midwife was the tacky penny attractions of back street fairs and Victorian “freak shows”. Indeed in an age where midwifes can be men as well as women, I tempted to argue that cinema is also the illegitimate child of those low-brow forms of entertainment. And it’s not hard to trace how those roots have also continued into the cinema of today. There has consistently been a stream of cinema that has an emphasis on “spectacle”, things that are “new” or not seen before (e.g. technologically) and that are more about entertainment (and the needs of the consumer) rather than something purer more akin to art.

    And then of course there is propaganda, which can be defined as a creative work driven primarily by the needs of the producer. Film has often been adopted in support of one cause or another from that produced by dictatorships, through to advertising. And whilst many Bible film producers may baulk at the term, many films about the Bible have far more in common with religious tracts. Indeed many of the early silent films were produced by evangelists seeking novel ways to reach people, and the last decade has seen numerous films marketed as “evangelistic tools”

    The result is that cinema is, and has long been, very diverse. Some films are more arty and abstract others more entertaining, but in some ways I thought it might be interesting to look at how some of the key Bible films map to these 6 different roots – theatre, literature, photography, painting, entertainment and propaganda. And I thought some brief form of categorisation might be interesting.

    However, in listing these as follows I am not saying that these streams are distinct or that films fit solelyinto one category or the other: clearly they overlap. In fact, I’ve deliberately listed some in more than one category and fully recognise that films are complex works influenced by numerous people with a variety of aims and motivations (and I’m reminded of Robin Wood’s analysis of Hitchcock’s five basic plot formations and the accompanying disclaimers). That said it is interesting how some films fall fairly comfortably into one category or the other, and so, despite those disclaimers, I thought this might be an interesting exercise.

    Theatrical
    Green Pastures (1936), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Godspell (1973), Jesus of Montreal (1989)

    Literature
    The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), Last Temptationof Christ (1988), Gospel of John (2003), Visual Bible: Gospel of Matthew (1994)

    Photography
    Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Birdsong (2008) and for a rather differnt reason The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902)

    Painting
    Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Passion of the Christ(2004)

    Spectacle
    The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), Noah’s Ark (1928), The Ten Commandments (1956) King of Kings (1961), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

    Evangelistic Tracts
    Day of Triumph (1954), Jesus (1979),Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002), Passion of the Christ (2004), The Bible/Son of God (2013/2014)

    Friday, May 15, 2015

    Two by Two/Ooops Noah has Gone (2015)


    Earlier in the year the BBC’s Tony Jordan told us the first draft of his script for The Ark ended with the first drop of rain. Now it’s two months later and for this new Noah movie that’s the starting point rather than it’s end.

    You see whereas many Noah films are concerned with the protagonist and his struggle with his role, in this one Noah is entirely absent. Instead the focus is on the animals on-board the ark, or rather those that are not quite on-board. You see somehow our hero Finny, and his new friend Leah have missed the boat, literally. Finny wasn't meant to be on it in the first place. He and his dad Dave had stowed away on board disguised as the other half of Leah’s family. But when the two go exploring they get separated and end up not being on-board when the ark gets swept away.

    It all leads to a Finding Nemo type plot only involving two children and two parents (Leah’s mum, Hazel, is also part of the cast). There’s been criticism in some circles for that similarity of theme, but I don’t think those are warranted. Separation of children from their parents is such a primal fear (in both directions) that it’s territory worth exploring - let's face it, it even crops up in the story of Jesus. And the way that plot device is used to examine the issue is fairly different and different themes emerge.

    One of the most interesting of these is the way the film examines the issue of nature versus nurture. Other films look at how we can break free from our upbringing, or move past traumatic experiences from the past. By assigning personality traits to the evolutionary make up of species Two by Two is able to look at the issue of how much of who we are is due to hard wiring and how we might overcome it. Leah and Hazel are grimps - their status as aggressive loners is built into their DNA. Yet the film raises the possibility that they might even overcome the limitations of their birth, such that, by extension it suggests, so might we. In a not dissimilar vein it also seems to advance the theory that if we can discover the place we really fit we can thrive in a way we might never have thought possible.

    Part of the reason that the film can explore these issues is because rather than using known and familiar animals as its lead characters, it uses made up ones instead. This raises interesting possibilities in a way that using rabbits and guinea pigs would not. Had it used familiar animals then any sense of tension would be gone - the audience would know in advance that their survival was guaranteed. Here, whilst it seems unlikely that all of the leading characters are going to be wiped out, it does suggest some latitude, particularly when you bring evolution and adaption into the mix as well. It opens up a range of options and lead to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

    Sadly, for me at least, it doesn't really have a great deal to say about the biblical story of the flood. The basics are there (although the eponymous two by two rule is seemingly not adhered to religiously) and it’s an interesting idea to take away the human focus, but it doesn't have much to offer in its place. There are a number of moments when the characters pull through in unlikely ways, but these are clearly just down to a question of genre rather than God-acting-in-mysterious-ways moments. Everything just happens because it does and leaves the whole film feeling like an unsatisfying plot device. The original story has layers of meaning - it’s an origins story, a story of faithfulness, of a god purging his subjects, of deliverance and of new creation. None of these themes really emerge and the film ending where it does leaves little conclusion other than a bit of self realisation.

    The other thing that was lacking, for me at least, was humour. I stress the personal angle in this not merely because humour is notoriously subjective, but also because I’m wary of veering into abusing national stereotypes. The film is a collaboration between Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland and three of those nations have a notably poor reputation for humour amongst the English. I strongly suspect it’s just a difference in what one is used to. Nevertheless, it did seem like it would have been rather easy to inject a little more humour at numerous points in the story. Humour that would be a bit more lowest common denominator (meant in the original, rather than the more modern - and derisory - sense).

    Overall Two by Two: Ooops Noah is Gone is not a bad little film. I enjoyed it more than I expected and the kids did as well, and some of its lessons are certainly valuable. But it’s not really a Noah film, it just came along for the ride.

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    Sunday, May 10, 2015

    Metéora (2012)


    Paradoxically there's both a familiarity about Spiros Stathoulopoulos' Metéora (2012) and a sense of novelty. It's reminiscent of a number of films which do hear some similarity thematically but are very different in terms of style. It concerns the ordinary lives of those living in remote mountainous monasteries and bears many similarities with Into Great Silence and Of Gods and Men and captures the slow, quiet passing of time in much the same way. But it also explores the issue of forbidden love for those who are meant to be living celibate lives for their God and that combined with the barren, rocky desert setting brings to mind The Last Temptation of Christ, even before the climatic scene featuring the crucifixion. But as with several other moments in the film, that scene is animated, using the style of Orthodox iconography. And it's about monks, which also brings to mind the way in which The Secret of Kells uses an animation style based on Celtic-style religious art to tell the story of an early Irish monastic community. In terms of whether or not this is a film for you, I suggest you think about how you feel about each of those films and go from there.

    There's no plot to speak of, Theodoros is a Greek monk who is in love with Urania, a Russian nun. We're not told how they fell in love, or even how long things have been going on. Indeed it's not even clear if this is love or just a temporary fascination. Neither is fluent in other's language and we don't know how the became aware of the other and made their feelings known. Indeed Theodora's doesn't even know the colour of Urania's hair. Theodoros and Urania's respective communities live opposite one another atop rocky pillars so high and steep you wonder how they ever managed to build them.  The film takes it's name from the ancient group of Greek monasteries which go back almost 1000 years. Seemingly not much has changed inside the monasteries, and from the few moments of footage from outside the monastery it seems things haven't changed too much there either. The only way in and out of Urania's nunnery is to be lowered down in a net from the buildings on top, a metaphor for being trapped if ever there was one.

    Stathoulopoulos makes his camera still and impassive allowing the images to breathe and speak for themselves. It's a great way of capturing the quiet, peaceful isolation of these communities and the silence that life there must bring. It also captures the dramatic, stark beauty of the surroundings, of the rocky pillars towering over the landscape. It's not hard to see why the monks chose this spot in the first place and Stathoulopoulos provides breathtaking image after breathtaking image. Yet his impassive use of the camera is not just about the beauty of the image but also allow the viewer to observe what is going on and draw their own conclusions; to look at how the characters wrestle with the issues.

    In contrast to this however, these scenes are intercut with the animated scenes, no less beautiful or stark, but certainly more expressive and emotional. It's as if  they stand to offer a commentary on the live action images that make up the majority of the film. It's here that the characters' inner lives are revealed, the emotions they have shut away beneath the surface.

    Interwoven through all of this are various references to, and citations of, Psalm 23 and the film wrestles with passage as things progress. The words have a comforting feel to them, but the images we see tend to conflict with them. There are no green pastures or still waters. The most memorable scene of a "table being laid" is not in the presence of enemies, yet breeds enmity. Most strikingly of all is the scene of shepherds handling their goats and doing to one what shepherds ultimately do to all those in their care, which the sheep in the psalm somehow fails to anticipate. It's one of several moments in the film when the peaceful atmosphere is broken by something more jarring. The events are not overly dramatic in themselves, but set against the calming quietness of monastic life they stand out like the Metéoran pillars themselves.

    Perhaps the film's most dramatic scene is one of animated scenes when Theodoroas comes face to face with Jesus on the cross (pictured above). Throughout the film Theodoros' visual similarity to Jesus has been obvious, but here it is made even more explicit. And as with many films which include a climatic encounter with the crucified Christ this one is decisive and pivotal. Yet there's also an ambiguity about the meaning of this scene. The imagery is striking an potent and yet Stathoulopoulos' refuses to tell his audience what to think or how to interpret his work. It's in keeping with this film which offers much food for thought without pushing hard answers.

    =========

    Metéora is available on the subscription viewing service MUBI until the 15th May. (For what it's worth, it's a great service).
    I should add that this isn't my original version of this review. That was quite good and then the app I'd done it on crashed and now it's all gone. Sadly whilst I got back most of the content I don't have the time to make this read as well as before. Oh well.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2015

    Quotes on Atti Degli Apostoli (1969)

    With A.D. The Bible Continues airing on NBC at the moment there's a little talk around about other films based on the Acts of the Apostles and, as it happens, today I received in the post a new book about Roberto Rossellini's whose own take on the book of Acts - Atti Degli Apostoli (1969) - is one of my favourites. There's not much in the book about the film but there are a couple of good quotes that I thought I would reproduce here.

    The book is "Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real" and it's a compilation of essays edited by David Forcas, Sarah Lutton and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. However the final section of the book is a collection of six "documents" written on or by Rossellini during the 50s and the 70s. The one I'm quoting here is document C, "Letter from Rossellini to Peter H. Wood (1972)" and says the following
    The Acts of the Apostles is the story of Luke the Evangelist, but also of the change in ethics in our history when the Hebrew idea of nature - a gift of God which man must us to distinguish himself from the animals - spread, thanks to Christianity, through the Greek-Roman pagan world, which had regarded nature as something inviolable, which men, through rite and ritual, tried to render benign. (p.164)
    The other quote is from Adriano Aprà's chapter "Rossellini's Historical Encyclopedia" and is found on page 144.
    Acts of the Apostles is, in my opinion, alongside The Age of Cosimo de 'Medici and Cartesius, the best of Rossellini's television films. It is also the 'hottest', the one where the emotional involvement he renounces elsewhere is most visible. There is a broad sweep: the film starts from the centre, Jerusalem, and a community of brothers, the apostles, then gradually the circle widens. The apostles set out on their journey (like the friars at the end of Francesco); the conflict between Jews, Greeks and Romans, initially contained within the city, echoes along the route which takes the apostles and later Paul to Palestine, Syria, Pisidia, Athens and Rome, where the last scene in the films opens with the same invocation as the first (Jerusalem! Jerusalem!") and the circle is closed. Acts is the film of harmonic totality. The itinerary of the abstract idea is a concrete journey where the characters are cocooned by the surrounding space; the male community of the brothers is constantly given warmth by the silent activity of the women, who are frequently highlighted by the zoom; the dialogue, more than in the other films, is used to establish contact between people and try and overcome differences. Rossellini takes liberties with the text of the apostle Luke, synthesising, expanding, cutting and inventing to good effect.

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    Friday, April 17, 2015

    The Savior (2013)


    One of the most common criticisms of films about Jesus is that the actors chosen for the leading role are either too good-looking, or too white and, not uncommonly, both together. Recent years, though, have seen a bit of a reversal in that particularly trend and what with the performance of part-Tamil Selva Rasalingam in the Lumo Project's Gospel of John finding a wider audience this Easter and Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman's potrayal in Killing Jesus actors of south Asian descent are started to provide a more ethnically correct Jesus.

    But before either of those productions got off the ground, Robert Savo's The Savior had already had its première and had been touring film festivals back in 2013. The film not only stars Israeli-born actor Shredy Jabarin in the lead role - which is of itself, I believe, something of a first - but all the dialogue is in Arabic.

    Whilst Jabarin's ethnicity and the filmmaker's decision to opt for a Middle-Eastern language are more quasi-authentic than fully authentic, it does make watching the film interesting and its certainly more authentic than the Hollywood Jesuses with their blue eyes and blond hair.

    Moreover it's not a bad little film. Jabarin's performance as Jesus may not quite be divine, but there's hardly a step out of place and he manages to add gravitas without getting dull or stodgy over being overly severe. Jesus smiles occasionally but he always feels like a man with a bigger, more pressing vision on his mind.

    There is also some nice camerawork, notably the moment Jesus and the disciples emerge over the hill ready for their fateful trip to Jerusalem, good soundtrack and I particularly enjoyed the film's use of colour and camera filters.

    One of the things about Jesus films that is usually quit telling is seeing the episodes from his ministry that the filmmakers choose to include and here the film steers away from many of the scenes that appear in most of the other Jesus biopics. So there's no rescuing the adulteress, or Sermon on the Mount, for example. On the other hand we also get a few episodes from the gospels that appeared in a several of the early Jesus films, but have largely been absent ever after. So there's the exorcism in the local synagogue (Mark 1:21-28); the healing of the widow of Nain's son (Luke 7:11-25) replete with the film's best special effects; the mini-apocalypse of Mark 13; and the discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

    Indeed the film manages to pack an awful lot into the first hour or so before Jesus and his disciples arrive in Judea. The nativity story lasts only 15 minutes, the rest of the first hour deals with Jesus' ministry prior to his arrival at the temple. It's able to do this by a combination of economical scene selection combined with the decision to avoid embellishing the story wherever. Whilst it's an interesting approach it perhaps leaves the film a little light on drama and character development. The film tends to whizz from one scene to the next without joining the dots. Each of the scenes, in and of themselves, offer a fairly credible portrayal, but it's not always very clear what motivates the various characters.

    One major exception to this however is the long scene of the Last Supper and, in particular, the moment when Jesus washes his disciples feet. It suggests that this demonstration of humility is one of the key points that the filmmakers are trying to stress and that's highlighted still further immediately afterwards when the disciples argue over which of them is the greatest. There's a hint of this in John's gospel, but the contrast is made all the stronger by moving this incident here.

    Having said all that there are a few weakness in the film, not least the jarring and rather sporadic use of the narrator, and some of the special effects. The narration device - depicting an elderly Luke sitting down to write - feels very dependent on the Visual Bible's Matthew project and stresses Luke's role. It even opens by emphasising the lengths Luke has to go to just to prepare his ink. But this is a rare device in cinema in general and with good reason. I can see why emphasising the written nature of the text might appeal to those seeking to find common ground with the "people of the book", many of whom speak some form of Arabic, but it adds very little dramatically and the latter parts of the film are all the better for his general absence.

    The special effects are also rather mixed. Generally one can accept that a film like this is fairly low budget and may not have the money to invest in impressive special effects; a good film can work around those, indeed as I noted of Ray's King of Kings (1961) some bigger budget films do this anyway. The problem is that most of the effects budget seems to have been used up in the temptation in the desert scene and it doesn't really pay off. I'd be interested to know what proportion of the overall budget went on that scene alone. For some reason it's a common approach to go to town with special effects on this scene and yet the most effective treatments, for me at least, are those where there are no special effects, such as (another big budget film) The Greatest Story Ever Told. Having said all that the angelic scenes are more restrained and I did like the effect used when the widow of Nain's son was brought back to life. I'm quite intrigued to know how they did it.

    However, these are fairly minor complaints. Overall the film has a good sense of restraint and is built on fairly sound filmmaking principles. Most of the scenes work well not least because Savo seems to appreciate the restraints he is under and brings out the best with what he has. He knows for example, that many of his actors are not very experienced, so he places a great deal of weight on Jabarin's shoulders, knowing he is up to the task. The dialogue is dramatised but, aside from the narration, not allowed to get bogged down in any particular agenda. And after years of seeing English, American and occasionally European productions the film gives a sense of place, time and sensibility which whilst they may not entirely reflect the first century Palestinian context in which the stories occurred, certainly captures it in a way that few, if any, other films about Jesus do.

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    Sunday, April 12, 2015

    King of Kings (1961) Revisited


    I watched King of Kings (1961) on Easter Monday for the first time I what seems like a very long time. Whilst I've revisited certain clips in the intervening period it was good to take it in in it's entirety and on a large high definition screen, making those colours stand out all the more and doing justice to Ray's bold images and Jeffrey Hunter's blue eyes. Ray is perhaps best appreciated for his use of internal space and smaller' more intimate stories, so it's interesting that it's the big scenes that I most appreciate here.

    One such scene, that has always been one of my favourites is the historical prologue, voiced by Orson Welles. Many recent films have highlighted the story's context of the Jews living under occupation by the Romans, but rarely to the extent here. Pompey's victory is effectively year nought for this story, everything beforehand is largely irrelevant and everything afterwards is related to it. Welles' narrative seamlessly moves from narrating Pompey's invasion and the subsequent skirmishes into directly quoting Luke's "historical" prologue to the nativity story as if they are cut from the same cloth. But of course Ray is essentially doing to his gospel what Luke has done to his - prefix it with historical gloss to give a sense of place, time and context.

    It's disappointing, then, that this all gives way to such a conventional retelling of the nativity. Having seen this part of the story reworked and reinvented so many times, it's retelling here is entirely devoid of drama, except the slaughter of the innocents. Indeed it seems that Ray intends the main point of the first part of this story to focus on the violent context. Pompey's murder of the priests, the Romans' executions of insurrectionists, Herod's slaughter of the infants and finally Herod Antipas assisting his father's death literally kicking him off his perch. The narration links this all together with the unusual phrase "Herod self-crucified" linking him to both the executed revolutionaries before him and Jesus' inevitable crucifixion. Herod is an evil man, but in a sense he is just another person destroyed by the violence that accompanies the thundering machinery of a violent empire.

    And herein lies the basis of Ray's gospel: Jesus is a messiah of peace that stands in opposition to all this power and violence. Perhaps this is why there is a such a preponderance of low angle shots in this film, stressing the towering magnitude of the Roman Empire and the lowly humble path Jesus and his followers will undertake. The camera often gazes up at the authorities in this film, but down on Jesus, most notably of course in that camera-attached-to-the-top-of-the-cross shot that is so very reminiscent of Dali's famous painting. That said there are exceptions in both directions: the Sermon on the Mount often captures Jesus from below, but when Salome asks Herod for John the Baptist's head, we get a high overhead God shot, a reminder that what goes on in the private quarters of the powerful and wealthy is still seen and judged by the god who sees everything.

    However, this is one of the rare occasions where Ray uses some kind of filmmaking technique to force a supernatural interpretation of what we are seeing, perhaps because of the film's interest in power and the use of force. It's notable, for example, that we're treated to a very Markan baptism. There's no literal dove or protestations from John. Jesus may have heard a voice from Heaven, but we do not.

    Furthermore, whilst several miracles are seen on screen, they don't use special effects. This isn't because the film is low budget, and I don't think it is necessarily to accommodate doubt, but rather that doing so would have forced a particular perspective. Lucius' reporting of other miracles is well documented, but note also how the resurrection is all off camera. I think it's significant that the only time a classic "special effect" is used, it's used by the devil during the temptation, and it's a lurid and unconvincing overlay of a tacky looking city. It's so jarringly out of kilter with the rest of the film's look and feel that it seems deliberate to me.

    Jesus of course rejects Satan's advances, in fact the first words Jeffrey Hunter utters are "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word of God". Again given Ray's concerns with violence and social injustice this seems significant. Those opening scenes pit Zealots against Romans but sides with neither, because whilst Barabbas and the Zealots are concerned with earthy issues such as! presumably, "bread" Jesus emphasises that some things are more important.

    As the film progresses, the idea persists that Barabbas's fighters are really just the opposite side of the coin to Roman violence. Jesus' way is radically different. It's interesting that every time there is a big set piece battle in the film, the kingdom of peace is shown going about its business in virtually the same space, but somehow in parallel to the warring Romans and Zealots. So in the opening overview whilst Rome defeats the Zealots Jesus is born. Later when Barabbas's men ambush Pilate's soldiers, the scene is prefaced by footage from just over the hill of John baptising his followers. And, of course, there is Jesus' alternative entry to Jerusalem via donkey which the Zealots attempt to turn into a revolution which ends in them quite literally being trampled into the dirt by the Roman army. There's perhaps a fourth example: in the background when Jesus is crucified there is, to borrow from Welles' opening narration, a sea of crosses - a sign that Roman violence has once again overcome Jewish violence.

    The other notably unusual use of the camera that Ray utilises extensively in this film is the split-focus diopter lens. (This is a split lens allow one half of the camera to focus on a character in the extreme foreground whilst the other half focuses on a character or object in the background). Despite my familiarity with this film it was a surprise to see it used to widely given that it's a technique largely associated with the seventies. It's used significantly in All the President's Men and on YouTube there are demonstrations of Brian DePalma's repeated use of it in Blow Out. But this was 1961 which makes Ray very much a leader in this field. In high definition there's at least one shot that is useful for demonstrating the technique. After the Sermon on the Mount Jesus and Peter talk and if you look at the tree that runs diagonally across the scene you can see how it moves from being blurred on Jesus' side to being in focus next to Jesus.

    There are a few other nice camera moments that I had not noticed before. There were a couple of nice compositions I really appreciated this time around. The one at the top of this post is from the Sermon on the Mount, the one lower down is from Jesus' trial. Also between Jesus' arrest and his subsequent death there's quite a bit of footage of Judas including one where he somehow gets literal blood on his hands and another where he witnesses the crucifixion up close and picks up a stone (this doesn't seem coincidental so it's perhaps a reference to the earlier non-stoning of the woman taken in adultery scene).

    Another character who gets developed in ways beyond their character's development in the Bible is Pilate's wife. Firstly she is involved in discussions that it seems highly unlikely that Pilate's real wife would ever have been. But, in contrast to her waspish, jaded and cynical husband, she is consistently intrigued by Jesus, his message and the stories that surround him. It's stressed that she is Caesar's daughter but she sneaks out with Lucius to witness the Sermon on the Mount. There's a moment of reflection by a pool of water, and most significantly she is present on Jesus' road to the cross. Indeed when he stumbles she even steps forward as if to offer to carry the cross. All this seems in keeping with the moment in Matthew when she warns Pilate of the potential consequences of killing Jesus, but unusually this moment is not present in the film. The film was much cut and perhaps this is a moment that was filmed but ultimately left on the editing room floor.

    I think the same fate must have accompanied some of the footage of Mary Magdalene. She is present in early scenes, most notably when she pops in for a chat with Jesus' mother, but then she disappears from the film right up until it's time for her to witness the resurrection.

    However, the main omission that most Jesus films include is the presence of the Jewish authorities. This isn't just about edits in post-production, it's far more significant. Caiaphas is one of Herod and Pilate's cronies, but there are no other Jewish official leaders to speak of, nor are there any Pharisees. Indeed, aside from Caiaphas and Barabbas's dismissal of his significance there is no real opposition at all to Jesus and his message from within Judaism. Jesus trial in from of Caiaphas is given the briefest mention, but the soldiers who arrested him are Roman. Given how many Jesus films have been labelled anti-Semitic, this film goes to considerable lengths to distance itself from any such accusations fitting for a version of the Jesus story that goes to such lengths to portray him as the antidote to violence.

    Lastly, there is the Great Commission scene on the beach, clearly in Galilee rather than Jerusalem and on the flat rather than on a mountain. Interestingly, immediately after Jesus words the disciples split up and head off in different directions. According to Acts of course, the church clung together in Jerusalem for several years before really splitting up to travel further afield, but it' say nice visualisation of their future. As a big fan of Rossellini's 1950 film Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God's Jester) I can't help wondering if this is a nod to the final scene in that film where Francis' followers spin round until they fall over and then head off in the direction they are pointing. Jesus' method of commissioning may be more serious, but it's message no less important, for those living under Roman rule, for those in 1961 and for us today.

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    Sunday, April 05, 2015

    David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter (2015)


    The rise of Simon Peter is an unusual one. He shared more or less the same humble roots as Jesus, but whereas Jesus died in almost the same obscurity and with the same low rank as he began, Peter, if the traditions are to be believed, rose to become the leader of the church across the largest and most influential city of the Empire: Rome.

    It's this unlikely rise that David Suchet charts in his latest two part documentary for the BBC David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter. Suchet starts in Rome with an introduction not dissimilar to the one above, before returning to the Holy Land for the rest of the first part of the documentary to examine Peter's life up to the point of Jesus' death.

    Suchet starts his investigation in Bethsaida, where Peter, then still known by just his Hebrew name, Shimon, was reputed to have grown up. Culturally it was a very cosmopolitan town with a mixture of Jews and other traders from across the empire, indeed Suchet learns that the archeological evidence suggest a very mixed diet was consumed, much of it non-Kosher. Bethsaida was known for its fishing and we're shown fishing net weights and needles that fisherman such as Peter would have used, although the Sea of Galilee has now retreated from where it stood 2000 years ago.

    From Bethsaida to Capernaum, the alleged site of Peter's mother-in-law's house and a far more Jewish settlement than Bethsaida though still one with a strong fishing industry. Suchet gets to visit the, so called, Jesus Boat and learns a bit about how fisherman like him would have clubbed together with others to go into business. Boats such as this needed crews of five and fishing licences and other expenses would have made the cost quite high. Somehow the notion seems to get accepted that Peter was a middle class business owner, but it does rather seem to beg the question.

    Another key site on the Sea of Galilee is Caesarea Philippi where Peter, now a firm follower of Jesus declared that Jesus was the messiah and Jesus replies that on this rock he would build his church. But the rock Suchet stands in front of is a large, former pagan shrine. Suchet uses his experience as an actor to draw out some of the ambiguities of the raw text. Did he mean the rock behind him or the man in front of him? Was he pointing at himself or just referring to Peter's words.

    It's one of the many strengths Suchet brings to his role. As well as his affability with his guests there's a real passion for the subject and an interest in the material. He carries a notebook around with him, but, as the camera occasionally reveals, it's more for sketching than writing, and there's an ongoing sense that Suchet is getting behind the character, trying to understand the character and pick out the drama and humanity in the story. There are some nice moments where Suchet offers a dramatised telling of the story.

    But the success of this documentary also lies in the way it uses the visuals to make an impact. There is, of course, many a BBC documentary where a presenter goes around getting to see and handle the artefacts that accompany their story, but in addition to this, here the Galilean landscapes and the Roman architecture really add to the scene of this incredible transition. And in HD the overhead footage of Jerusalem looks incredible.

    One particularly powerful moment in this respect is the visit to Mount Hermon. It's not a scene that appears in many Jesus films and most of those that do portray it were made on quite small budgets. So in my mind I picture a small hill at best. However, the footage of Mount Hermon really brings home the size of it and just as Suchet is dwarfed by the size of the mountain, seeing this new context makes me realise how the disciples must have been dwarfed by it as well, but also of the appropriateness of such a setting for a moment that so emphasises Jesus' divinity.

    From the Mount Hermon to Mount Zion where Suchet hears about Passover, the temple and learns the context around that strange part in Luke 22:38 where Peter tells Jesus he has two swords and Jesus says that this should be enough. First century Jerusalem, and particularly the countryside around it, was not particularly safe so travellers would bring some form of self defence as standard.

    Suchet then joins Shimon Gibson on the site of one of his current excavations - a house in Jerusalem. They're there to get a feel for Peter sneaking into the high priest's enclosure where he would deny Jesus. Both Suchet and I are struck by how small the courtyard area is. Whilst it's not hard to imagine the high Priest might live in a slightly grander house than this one, again I find myself having to recalibrate my previous mental images of the scene. Gibson points out that just entering such an enclosed, intimate, yet potentially dangerous space was an act of significant bravery.

    The final, and all too brief, segment of the first part of the film looks at Jesus' death and burial and the empty tomb on the following Sunday. The key location here is a first century tomb, but there's no mention that being entombed was exceedingly rare for those crucified, and the mention of Peter and the empty tomb, particularly for a documentary running over Easter weekend is particularly lightweight. Part one ends with Suchet offering his thoughts and concluding with the question "so how does Peter get from this, the possible lowest point in his life, to becoming, what some people call, the Pope of Rome?"

    The answer to this question would seem to lie with both the resurrection and Pentecost and, sure enough, part two opens with the story of Jesus appearing to Peter and six of the other disciples on the beach (John 21). There's a lovely shot of fish cooking over an open fire on shores of Lake Galilee, but he discussion about the resurrection is rather scant. It's true that Pentecost (which we come to next) was also very significant to Peter's about turn and that the encounter with Jesus on the beach was personally redemptive. Nevertheless, it's a shame the programme doesn't actually mention that the gospels claim that Peter witnessed the risen Jesus at least three times in the presence of the other disciples and once on his own. The veracity of that claim can be disputed. There are a range of positions on what "resurrection" actually means, and on the veracity and verifiability of those claims. I must admit that I personally am unsure what exactly is to be made of them. But surely the remit of a documentary like this that it should at least examine the crucial moments in the story, even if it ultimately finds them wanting, or, as it more often the case, concludes that whether you believe it all or not is a matter of faith.

    Following the discussion of Pentecost we move onto Peter's encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius - "a huge moment for Peter". There's a brief retelling of Peter's escape from Herod's jail before Suchet picks up the trail in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). There's some footage of the stunning frescoes carved into the rock in the old St Basil's monastery there and reflections on how the monks there followed the sort of approach that Peter advocated. A brief reference is made to the early chapters of Acts and 1 Peter 3:8-9 is recited.

    From Cappadocia the story returns to Jerusalem and the council that debated Gentile admission to the church. This felt a little under done, but it's perhaps of less interest in such a visual documentary as this as those parts of the story where historical artefacts or artistic interpretations are quite so stunning.

    Which brings things nicely to Rome and the Appian way. The focus here is very much on Peter's leadership of the Roman church. Was it likely and how might he have influenced things there? The programme's theological consultant Ed Adams suggests Peter didn't actually found the church in Rome, even if he led it at some point, so the programme moves to the most likely time for Peter's leadership of the church around the great fire in 64 AD. Various experts discuss this informing us that Nero was prone to scapegoating, that he liked making examples of the prominent leaders, but that any such reprisals were more likely to be by burning, beheading or garrotting than by upside down crucifixion. Furthermore, had Peter been upside down it may have been by his request or by the soldiers' own cruel initiative.

    And so we arrive at the inevitable tour of the catacombs. It's easy to get blasé about yet another documentary trip around the tunnels and chambers underneath Rome. Yet it also seems that every documentary seems to somehow find a fresh part of this underground world that I've not seen before. It really brings home just how unfathomably large the catacombs are and Suchet certain finds some good points of interest in the bit he chooses on which to focus.

    Having covered a great deal of ground on a horizontal axis, the film's final transition is vertically, back up to the surface and into St Peter's square. Here Suchet chooses to sum up, against the backdrop of Peter's most recent spiritual ancestor arriving in his pope mobile. Even with the current incumbent's drive towards a more humble faith, Suchet cannot escape the disconnect between the finery of today's Vatican and Peter's humble beginnings on the Sea of Galilee. He leaves us with the question that is already in our minds: "What would he have made of all this?"

    Overall David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter is a strong and fairly enjoyable documentary owing to a combination of Suchet's affable enthusiasm, a strong range of knowledgeable experts, an impressive selection of interesting artefacts and some impressive photography. It's a shame that the events of the first Easter are rather short changed, but there's much here that even well seasoned fans of Bible documentaries will learn and enjoy.

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    I've got into the habit of writing down all the experts' names when I watch documentaries like these and so, having done so here, it seemed a shame to exclude them even though there are so many of them that embedding them within the review itself would rather ruin the flow. The list is rather impressive, not least because I don't recall the majority of them appearing in one of these programmes before. And it has admirable breadth, encompassing archaeologists, theologians, fisherman, rabbis, seminary students and art historians. So here's the full list in order of appearance:
    Part 1
    Kate Raphael, Eugenio Alliata, Orna Cohen, Kurt Raveh, Menahem Lev, Claire Pfann, Karen Stern,Ronny Reich, Guy Stiebel, Shimon Gibson.
    Part 2
    Stephen Pfann, Joan Taylor, Gil Gambash, Daniel R Schwartz, Freda Barut, Helen Bond, Arnold Nesselrath, Edward Adams, Riccardo Di Segni, Thomas Cunnah, Ryan Day, Peter Stoddart, Valerie Higgins, Candida Moss, Jerry Brotton.

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    Friday, April 03, 2015

    The Antkeeper (1966)

    What do "Late Great Planet Earth" and Luis Buñuel have in common? Well if the IMDb is to be believed the answer is Rolf Forsberg. The first part of that comparison is fact: Forsberg directed the 1979 movie based on Hal Lindsay's bewilderingly successful book. The other half of the equation is more open to interpretation. Certainly Forsberg made surreal films about religious issues, of which his first, The Antkeeper is a good example. But I'm not sure how far the comparison goes beyond that. Certainly it flatters Forsberg far more than it does Buñnuel.

    The Antkeeper is certainly a novel little movie. Just shy of half an hour and the only Jesus-as-an-ant movie I know of. It’s premise is a simple one - to explain the Gospel as a metaphorical story about ants and their watchful keeper. In and of itself the idea will be surreal enough for some, but Forsberg makes a number of choices which move it into the field of the experimental as well as the surreal.

    Firstly there are some really interesting shots. The opening shot is an ant’s eye view of some grains of sand that look like rocks. There are the extreme close ups of the ants themselves.Then there is the use of light, colour and film-stock. The film uses bright, almost gaudy, colours but there’s a certain translucence about them. Certainly it deliberately eschews a studio feel in favour of a more arty cine camera feel.

    Lastly there are the portrayals of the characters. One of the characters, Bruja the character who is analogous to the devil, has a bizarre half old-man, half woman appearance. There’s a brief explanation for this, but it’s none too convincing, and really it seems like mainly an artistic choice. It does heighten the bizarre other-worldly feel of the film which some will enjoy, but others will find weird for weirdness’ sake.

    The problem with the film however is that the metaphorical aspect of the film fails in various significant ways. Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, the God character comes out of it very badly indeed. My daughter hit the nail on the head when she inadvertently called the antkeeper "the Evil Gardener". That was surely not Forsberg’s intention, but my daughter won’t be alone in viewing the character that way. For no reason he bans the ants from part of the garden - a decision that is not only incomprehensible to the ants, but also to us as well. When, despite his command, they visit the garden anyway, he pulls off their wings and banishes them to a barren desert bit of wasteland even though it’s surrounded my lusher looking areas.

    This touches on the other significant failing that using such an allegory exposes the holes in their narrative. (I say “their narrative” because while The Antkeeper is presented as a metaphorical retelling of the Christian Gospel certain parts of that gospel are particular to only certain groups of Christians. Certainly there are many Christians who would not accept the version of the gospel that The Antkeeper portrays).

    So taking the examples above the antkeeper’s deliberate maiming of the ants discredits the idea that he has any particular care for the ants. Creating a literal devil character likewise left me wondering why. The analogy makes the original story seem far less credible, rather than more, which surely cannot have been the original intention.

    Finally there’s a problem with the chosen allegory itself. In order to get the analogy to work the film has to anthropomorphise the ants. This then reverses the flow of the metaphor. The ants think and act like humans to the extent that it might just have been easier to tell an allegory using human characters.

    The metaphor is not without its strengths - the idea of a God that is to us like a gardener might be to an ant is an interesting idea, and it may help viewers to think more about how earth-shattering the idea of the incarnation is - but the best aspects of the film are its visual ideas rather than it’s theological ones.

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    The Antkeeper is available on DVD as part of the Gospel Film Archive's Easter 2015 Collection. The GFA provided the disc for this review. There's a little more on the film at the Christian Film Database.

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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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