• 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.

    Matt Page

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    Monday, September 22, 2014

    The Holy Mountain (1973)

    Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain is, I suppose, a Jesus film of sorts. But it's not hard to see it's rarely discussed along with more conventional takes on the story. Jodorowsky's dark surrealist vision is riddled with images that will tend to offend the kind of people who tend to watch Jesus films, and many others besides.

    I don't know a great deal about surrealist films and so I'm not going to pretend I do, nor pass much judgement on what Jodorowsky has produced. Certainly it's hard to know what to make of it all. But the images are undeniably striking and vivid and arresting and the sounds so utterly disconcerting that the hellishness of it all is hard to miss. Nevertheless it's not hard to see why it's not more widely known or even discussed. It's form is so very far from the mass appeal of Hollywood.

    It was financed heavily by John and Yoko and it's not hard to speculate as to  common ground. Nevertheless it remains Jodorowsky's vision of the hell that man can inflict on his fellow man and religion's impotence and at time complicity with that. Yet for all that, it's also kinda dull as the scores of naked bodies rapidly lose their appeal and the occasionally impressive camera tricks begin to form a parade of the grotesque that never really reaches it's destination.

    Sunday, August 31, 2014

    A Reworking of Hebrews 11

    I had the privilege of speaking at this year's Greenbelt festival on "The Depressives of the Bible". Afterwards a couple of people asked if they could get hold of my conclusion to the talk which was a reworking of the famous passage on faith in Hebrews 11. So here it is. Essentially I was trying to make the point that people with mental health problems, including depression, made a significant contribution to the stories in and the literature of the Bible and so I reworked the Hebrews 11 passage replacing "in sadness" for "by faith". Hope people find it useful.
    "Now this present sadness is a loss of confidence in what we hope for and a lack of assurance about what we do not see. This too is what the ancients were commended for.

    By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, but we also see that same universe full of pain and hurt and sadness.

    In sadness Cain's offering was deemed inadequate and he felt the pain of rejection.

    In sadness Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. Yet when he had seen the world condemned he felt a pain so deep that he tried to drown out his guilt with alcohol.

    In sadness Saul saw his kingdom torn from him for acting with compassion and then saw the adulation he had once received transferred to another.

    In sadness David, and those who came after him, found God in their pain and their music and wrote the words that would echo not just through one generation, but through the ages.
    In sadness Solomon, and those who bore his name, found life meaningless, but were unafraid to wrestle with God and cry out at the darkness.

    All these people were still living by faith when they died. Yet they did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and wished for them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. In sadness, they were longing for a better country

    In sadness Job saw his family wiped out and refused to shut up and accept the perceived wisdom. He chose not to be ill-treated but nevertheless suffered at the hands of the people of God. He persevered because he saw him who is invisible.

    In sadness Elijah cried out that God might kill him, even though he had witnessed an incredible miracle. And yet God did not reject him. He turned his back on the fire and the storm, hearing only the quiet sound, but still anointed leaders and put kings in their place.

    In sadness Jeremiah heard God's words of destruction for the city and the world he lived in. In sadness he was despised and abused. He chose to be ill-treated by the people of God rather than to enjoy their fleeting pleasures. Yet despite his sadness God did not count him as unworthy.

    And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Ruth, Naomi, Ezekiel, Mark and Nehemiah. Who despite sadness conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; whose weakness was turned to strength; Women received back their dead. Some faced jeers and flogging. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended in spite of their sadness, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

    Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders. And let us try to somehow pick ourselves up, and stagger on along the path marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and he who himself was known as the Man of Sorrows. He endured rejection, loneliness, desperation and the cross, scorning its shame, and sits now at the right hand of the throne of God."
    (Based on Heb 11& 12 NIVUK)


    Thursday, February 13, 2014

    A Story of David (1960)

    British/Israeli production A Story of David is the only modern-era David film not to feature his victory over Goliath. Instead, it bravely starts it's tale during the period when David is well-established at court. His slaying of the giant has led to prominence in Israel's army and he is happily married to Saul's daughter Michal.

    It's a gamble that certainly pays off. Often David films have a sense of anti-climax. After his early heroics, even becoming king seems to lack dramatic pay off. But then A Story of David doesn't have that either. Instead it limits its narrative to the story of David having to flee from Saul and surviving his forces in the wild until he and Saul are reconciled when David spares his life. Certainly this is the only film amongst the David biopics that manages to uncover the inherent tension in this part of the story.

    There are a number of interesting innovations here. Doeg the Edomite relatively minor role in the scriptures is greatly inflated to one as Saul's key advisor, poisoning his mind. Indeed Doeg comes to hold far greater prominence than Abner, who whilst he is steadfastly loyal to Saul nevertheless looks on with disapproval at many of his actions. There's also an enhanced role for Abiathar. As per 1 Sam 22 & 23 he escapes the slaughter of the priests at Nob and flees to be with David. Though still a boy he becomes one of David's inner circle - certainly not implausible given his later position as (joint?) High Priest. But he also becomes the one from David's mighty men who draws water from the well only to see David pour it out to the Lord (1 Chron 11). (This is the only David film to include this incident as far as I recall).

    The film also gives a significant amount of screen time to Abigail and her first husband Nabal, who is played by a relatively restrained performance by Donald Pleasence. This was three years before his role in The Great Escape brought him acclaim from outside the UK.

    By this stage, though, the plot is beginning to peter out. The final scene where David and Joab sneak past Doeg into Saul's tent lacks both the necessary tension and a sufficiently strong resolution leaving the film without a satisfactory ending.


    Tuesday, February 11, 2014

    David e Golia (1959)

    The title may read David and Goliath, but really it's all about Orson Welles' Saul. It's unclear what possessed Welles - a director of sublime talent - to get involved in this film, where very little talent is on display, but nevertheless he did and his portrayal of the Israelite king is, unsurprisingly, the best thing in an otherwise forgettable movie. Welles' heavy, sweaty body evokes memories of his earlier role as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958). The impression of corruption and decay is only heightened by the cheap and poorly lit throne room set and the generally amateurish feel of the production as a whole.

    Whilst the vast majority of the film is set in the period before David becomes his national hero, the filmmakers nevertheless introduce the theme of Saul's jealousy for his one-day successor. It's not hard to see why. In contrast to the boyish figures that feature in many films about David here he is a full-blown, muscular adult. Whilst actor Ivo Payer is certainly shorter in stature than Goliath, he would be a match for many a man. Personally my feeling is that this is a little more realistic. The odds are still overwhelmingly in Goliath's favour, but David's subsequent military heroics make far greater sense.

    One of the most interesting things about this film is that it gives Goliath a backstory. Indeed all three of the major players are developed as characters. The film's early scenes keep the three in isolation working hard to help the audience connect with them and build a backstory. This casts Goliath in a particularly interesting light. His character is shown to be a loner, living outside normal society. His only "friend" is really seeking to sell his labour to the Philistine kings. This sense of isolation is heightened by the bold and unusual soundtrack when Goliath is on screen. The orchestral music that features for most of the film is replaced by more esoteric sounds such as the musical saw and the theremin. It evokes sci-fi / monster B-movies, and makes Goliath monstrous and further emphasising how he is different from normal people.

    Of all the films about David, this is the one that is most content to invent plot lines to flesh out the story and leading characters. David's first scene features his fictional girlfriend Egla who dies when she is struck by lightning. Later David visits Jerusalem (which in this film is already an Israelite city) and appalled by what he sees takes action and makes a speech against those exploiting others to make money. It's strongly reminiscent of the episode in the Gospels where Jesus turns over the tables in the temple. Abner and Saul's daughter Merab are also lovers and plot together against David, a scheme brought to an end in one of the closing scenes when Saul shoots his favourite commander with a bow and arrow. These elements so add a greater level of intrigue to the plot.

    The biggest downside of the film, in the English dub, at least, is the attempted use of King James English. Whilst it's not hard to understand - it feels a little like someone has just gone through the script with a checklist of modern English words that convert to 17th century English - it's not close enough to the King James Bible to sound authoritative or authentic. Instead it leaves the film feeling stilted and phony and whilst the melodramatic acting and cheap sets mean this was never going to achieve classic status, it does ruin what had the potential to be a cult favourite B-movie.


    Friday, February 07, 2014

    David, a Young Hero and David, A King of Israel (1958)

    The The Living Bible series tends to stick very rigidly to the biblical text and the three episodes that feature David are no exception, so I've not got a huge amount of comments on these films. I say "three" because the elderly David does appear at the start of the episode Solomon, A Man of Wisdom. So anyway, here's more of a scene guide to these episodes (something I wish I'd kept closer tags on as I was writing up the others in this series). N.B. Where an incident occurs in both Samuel-Kings and in Chronicles I've referenced if from Samuel-Kings.
    David, A Young Hero
    David playing the harp whilst shepherding (Psalm 23)
    Anointing of David (1 Sam 16:1-13)
    David plays for Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23)
    David and Goliath (1 Sam 17)
    Saul throws a spear at David (1 Sam 18:10-17)
    Jonathan warns David using arrows (1 Sam 20)
    Given my post a few days ago about Saul's mental health problems the one moment of this production that really stood out was the scene where David is brought in to play his harp. It's interesting that the narrator seems to provide both a natural description of the problem as well as providing a supernatural explanation. Initially Saul's problem is described as "black moods of despair" - which is notable not least because we have not been shown Saul's rejection by God. Moments later, though, the cause of Saul's problem is put down to evil spirits.

    Given the film's low budget it does a good job of making an effective Goliath. By limiting the two competitors to only one shot in which they both appear some of the awkwardness about Goliath's relative size is effectively dealt with, and whilst the sound effects on Goliath's voice may lack sophistication they are certainly effective. I also like that David is clearly a late teenager/young man here rather than a young teenager/boy.

    The film does end at a curious point which very much underlines the fact that this is the first instalment of a two-parter. Jonathan confirms that his father is trying to kill David and so David heads off into "the wilderness". When David returns he will be played by an older actor. Most David films change actors shortly after his felling of Goliath suggesting it is this action that turns him into a man. Here however it is his having to flee Saul and live a life of the run that ages him and matures him.
    David, King of Israel
    The 400 come to David (1 Sam 22)
    Protection of Keilah (1 Sam 23)
    David spares Saul's life (1 Sam 24)
    David spares Saul's life a 2nd time (1 Sam 26)
    Elders make David king (2 Sam 2-5)
    The Ark Brought to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6)
    Covenant with David (2 Sam 7)
    It's slightly peculiar that for an episode called David, King of Israel only a third of it (5 minutes) involves David actually being king. Given the series' conservatism it's no surprise that it overlooks the troubles of his reign, not least his affair with Bathsheba and the problems with Absalom.

    One other pouint that stood out for me was in the scene where David spares Saul's life for the first time. Whereas most other films tend to depict Saul wearing his coat at the time, here he puts it down on a nearby rock, a rather more plausible scenario in my opinion. That said the robe itself is more like a women's wrap than any kind of robe, and the actor playing Saul clearly seems to struggle to wear whilst giving the impression that he has not noticed a large piece of it is missing.
    Solomon, A Man of Wisdom
    David announces his successor (1 Kings 1-2)
    David passes on his plans for the temple (1 Chr 28-29)
    [rest of episode]
    This film does go where most other films about David don't however covering the messy situation surrounding his successor. That said the ousted Adonijah seems rather more relaxed about David's pronouncement than the Bible suggests and the two half-brothers shake hands in a manner which in no way suggests that Solomon is about to butcher his rival. Bizarrely the next scene depicts David having sprung up from his death bed and explaining his plans for the temple. It is, to say the least, a rather odd arrangement.

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    Thursday, February 06, 2014

    King David (1985)

    Like The Story of David, Bruce Beresford's King David (1985) also tries to fit the majority of the events of David's life into a single storyline. However, as with that film King David also starts with Saul's sparing of the Amalekite king Agag.

    What follows is the stuff of Bible film folklore. The film bombed, lead actor Richard Gere won the Razzie for "Worst Performance of the Year" and it would be almost 30 years before another major studio would venture into the Hebrew Bible again.

    Surprisingly, though, King David is not nearly as bad as all that. Gere's award probably hung on the infamous nappy scene where he strips off an dances as the ark makes its way into the city. It's hard to suppress a giggle during the scene but in fairness to the filmmakers the text is clear that David's dancing was undignified and semi-naked. It's hard to imagine anything being a great deal more undignified than Gere monkeying around, but his display certainly fits the bill - it's easy to sympathise with Cheri Lungi's Michal. And, if nothing else, it's a tribute to Gere's flexibility as an actor that just three years later he was winning over hearts everywhere with his portrayal of a sex-trade client with a heart of gold.

    The other things that makes King David stand up well to some of the other films about David is that it is relatively short. At 114 minutes it manages to compress the storyline fairly effectively, covering all the main events: Saul's sparing of Agag, Samuel anointing David, David playing for Saul; David slaying Goliath; David and Michal; David fleeing for his life; Saul executing the priests; the deaths of Saul and Jonathan; the Ark being brought into the city; David's affair with Bathesheba; the rape of Tamar; Absalom's rebellion and Solomon's succession. There's even time to go into some of the incidents the other films don't cover such as Abigail and his other wives. By using a narrator the film is able to skip onto the next episode fairly quickly, although sometimes this is too much, too quickly with too little explanation.

    There are a few moments of interest for Biblical scholars. The film brings out and enhances some of the prophetic aspects of the story, such as Samuel using the Urim and Thummim to clarify which of Jesse's sons is to be anointed king. Samuel also follows this up by prophesying to David what else will to happen including that God will challenge him in a none-too-subtle reference to his fight with Goliath.

    There are also echoes of other Bible stories, such early in the film when Saul cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a phrase most familiar for being spoken by Jesus on the cross, but that is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22. Psalm 23 pops up as well as one of the songs David plays Saul (a feature of many of these films). Later on Absalom is question as to the whereabouts of Amnon and answers "Am I my brother's keeper?" with a reference to Cain and Abel.

    Perhaps the most significant re-appropriation of the Bible is the story of Jacob wrestling with God. This first occurs as one of Saul's dreams, but it is then read out by Ahimelech shortly before he and his fellow priests are murdered. The idea of wrestling with God and not just settling for the accepted way of doing things seems to underlie much of the film. As a boy David fought Goliath when no-one else would. As a king he danced semi-naked and shows mercy to Absalom in contrast to his advisors' reading of the law. Nathan even accuses him saying David thinks he "knows his [God's] will better than the prophets".

    This pattern finds ultimate expression in his final piece of advice to Solomon, his heir. "Be guided by the instincts of your own heart, no matter what the prophets tell you. For it is through the heart, the heart alone, that God speaks to man". Whilst such a "follow your heart" message is hardly a radical for a Hollywood movie, it is certainly contrary to the understanding of the time, a fact confirmed by Nathan's disapproving face as David says it.

    That's hardly surprising as Nathan is portrayed as a dour, harsh and inflexible character throughout. Even the way he challenges David by telling him the "You are the man" parable lacks any real conviction, and the film doesn't seem too troubled by the whole affair. In this film it's Bathsheba who approaches David and the screenplay conveniently rearranges the order of events to suggest that Uriah is killed before David sleeps with Bathsheba. Later when Absalom is declared dead David mourns at length, whilst Nathan stands nearby scowling and rebuking him "When will you learn to obey the Lord your God instead of your emotions".

    The scene following this is, perhaps, one of the most interesting in the film. David has been planning his temple, but when he hears God has rejected his plan he picks up Goliath's old sword an smashes his model temple to pieces. What's interesting is that as he is doing this (in slow motion no less) the narrator starts by saying "Fear the Lord and serve him in truth with all your heart. Consider the great things he has done for you" before adding "And behold it came to pass that David sinned no more. And the Lord smiled upon his servant David and strengthened his hand and gave him victory over his enemies wheresoever he went" before listing all the tribes David destroyed. The act of smashing the temple seems to be the filmmakers having an unsubtle swipe at organised religion, particularly as the narrator seems to endorse his actions by talking about David having God's favour.

    Yet the film can't completely cut itself free from the grasp of organised religion. Having contrasted David's faith with Nathan's inflexible religion the filmmakers desperately try to glue back on the branch upon which they had until recently been sitting. David lies on his death bed dispensing "follow your heart" advice like a 13 year old who's just discovered Facebook, but then expresses annoyance at the presence of a scribe. "Must you record every word I utter?" David enquiries irritably? "It's for the Book of Samuel my Lord. You ordered it". It's a strange attempt to lend the film some historical credibility with a rather old theory about how the Books of Samuel may have come into existence. It bears very little relation to any historically credible theory, not least because the Book of Samuel was only known by that title well into the Christian era. Furthermore, the scenes of David on his death bed come from the start of 1 Kings rather than 2 Samuel, and, of course, there David says nothing that could really be summarised by the above.

    It's possible, I suppose, that this is a clever suggestion that Nathan and his ilk got their hands on "the book of Samuel" and changed David's words to something that rather more suited their purpose. Possible, but unlikely. This is, after all, a film where all too often demonstrates its 'sophistication' with slow motion running; a David that can't shoot straight; a pre-battle "I'm Spartacus" type moment; and, yes, a man in a nappy dancing like a big monkey.


    Sunday, February 02, 2014

    Saul e David (1964)

    Saul e David by Italian director Marcello Baldi is a much undervalued member of the Bible films canon. So much so, in fact, that despite it having sat in my film library for many years I had to be reminded of it recently by Witlessd.

    The image above occurs near the end of what is for, for me, the finest shot in the film, and indeed one of the finest in any biblical film. It's from the scene in 1 Samuel 26 when David spares Saul's life for a second time. Only we don't yet know it. The previous shot of Saul's camp in the distance, it's lights twinkling in the darkness of the night fades into a slow panning shot of the hills. As the pan continues Saul's camp emerges in the foreground and the camera tracks past sleeping soldiers before pausing momentarily on Abner's face, and then on Saul who lies asleep with his water jug at his side. It pans again along Saul's body until it encounters his javelin and the feet of someone standing over him. A slow pan upwards reveals the face of David. It's a sublime shot, not quite on a par with Orson Welles' start to A Touch of Evil but certainly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.

    Director Marcello Baldi was a stalwart of Italian "Peplum" films. Other entries on his CV include Goliath and the Dragon (1960) and I grandi condottieri (1965 - a.k.a Gideon and Samson) so he was familiar with filming this type of material. (He also did a great deal of second director work). However here he transcends much of the cheesy Son of Hercules vs Venus type material to focus on the more intimate story of Israel's first two kings†.

    The film relies largely on Norman Woodward's performance as the troubled king. Some have found the performance to be over the top, others have found it powerful and sympathetic, but certainly it is an intimate performance that tries to understand Saul's paranoia, desperation and faltering faith. Gianni Garko also puts in a good performance as David too. Outwardly he cuts a heroic figure, his blond good looks and confidence winning audiences as well as almost everyone who comes into contact with him. But Garko manages to convey a great deal with his eyes. Again the shot above displays both his love for Saul, but also his sorrow that his King still wishes him dead.

    What's interesting about David's heroic stature is this was previously the role held by Saul. Few films really attempt to portray this, but Saul e David captures it brilliantly in the opening scene. As Saul arrives back at camp following his victory over the Amalekites the people swarm round him . It is clear he is their hero. Saul himself is seemingly swept away by their euphoria. When Saul arrives to chastise him for not following God's commands to the latter, Saul expresses his doubts that Samuel even hears God. The scene ends with Samuel declaring "you will grow smaller and smaller" and with that the film cuts to a series of quick shots of huge tents being collapsed as the army prepares to return home.

    The heroic link between Saul and David is emphasised when the Saul first encounters the young shepherd boy. "You're the ghost of my boyhood come to mock me" mutters Saul to the blond, almost golden skinned, child that stands before him. David's puniness casts a stark contrast with Goliath in one of the rare occasions that a David film portrays the giant at what would seem to be around 9'6". It's also one of the bloodiest befellings of the man from Gath, with blood spurting almost comically from his forehead.

    From then on the story focusses on Saul's obsession with David and his perceived threat and superiority. It's an intimate portrayal which really draws out the tension in Saul's family (Michal, Jonathan) which only serve to twist the knife.

    †Technically, amongst the northern ten tribes Saul's remaining son Ish-bosheth was the second king, ruling for two years before he was ousted by David, but that doesn't flow as well. Interestingly there is a reference to this at the end of the film. As Ish-bosheth witnesses the battle being lost he reminds Abner of his promise to protect him which he does. As they ride away Saul's other sons are killed and Saul falls on his own sword.


    Saturday, February 01, 2014

    Saul, Depression and The Bible Pt 4

    I have a great deal of sympathy for King Saul. I've experienced depression myself and have several close friends who have also struggled with it, so it, no doubt, makes me empathise with those whose minds trouble them.

    It would be foolish, of course, to try and place a precise diagnosis on someone who is, essentially, just a character in a book. We only have a very small part of the picture and the writers hardly sympathise with whatever the mental troubles are that so afflicted Israel's first king, nor do they have any sort of expertise in mental health. Indeed they, like most people of their time linked mental health problems to demon possession. Yet whilst scholars are becoming more comfortable aligning, say, some of the 'demoniacs' that Jesus 'exorcised' with epilepsy, there seem precious few revisionist takes on Saul.

    Saul, was a young and tall man when he was, rather surprisingly, anointed king of Israel. He was not at all prepared for the role - his family amongst the lowest in Israel - but found himself thrust into the limelight with only the resentful Samuel as his mentor. Yet despite the odds against him, he unites Israel and wins a string of key victories over the enemies that had been afflicted him. The result? The kingship is torn away from him on a couple of technicalities and he never sees his guide and mentor again. He slides into an affliction so deep that the court worries about how to help him. Fearing he is cursed, he dithers when faced with Goliath (who according to some manuscripts may only have been a little taller than Saul) and sees another young man from a humble background to fight in his place. David's victory is decisive, but propels him to greater popularity than even his king.

    We don't really know why Saul threw the spear at David. It's unlikely to be justified, but the sources all seem to favour David, despite his desertion to the Philistines, and so it's possible that the accounts of subsequent events are less than fair to Saul, but his reaction to David sparing his life is both an interesting contrast to the madman who we so often see depicted and a sign that sadness and humanity remained in his heart. His last acts smack of despair. Faced with a revived Philistine army, in desperation he consults a medium in the hope of reaching Samuel. Saul's worst fears and realised. The battle is lost. His sons are killed. He takes his own life.

    The above is not meant as a serious historical account, nor as a neatly comprehensive Bible study. It's simply offered as a more sympathetic take on Saul - a man whose great potential was destroyed by his troubled mind.

    I've been mulling this piece for a long time, perhaps almost a year since I first saw The Bible's fourth part. Various films treat Saul more or less badly. In some such as Rei Davi he is clearly stark, raving mad. In others, such as The Story of David he is played more sympathetically.

    The Bible's account is interesting because on the one hand it wants to stick closely to the text. It doesn't really want to appear historically inaccurate by allowing Saul to foam at the mouth. Yet on the other hand it goes to considerable length to cast Saul in a very poor light. In addition to the inclusion of all the major low points in Saul's life, the are three overarching ways in which his failings are highlighted / exaggerated: dialogue, storytelling licence and visual representation.

    As a series The Bible often uses paraphrased / invented dialogue but uses archaic sounding language to give it an air of authenticity. This is particularly true of the narrator whose authoritative voice lend the production the additional impression of credibility, particularly as the series first broadcast on the History Channel.

    In the fourth part of this series the narrator adds various bits of dialogue that emphasise and exaggerate Saul's failings. When Saul is condemned for not destroying Agag and the Amalekite animals the narrator concludes that "in trying to please his men Saul has displeased God". Later on he tells us that Saul is now "obsessed with destroying David".

    When The Bible's characters speak it is a mix of the semi-archaic and modernised dialogue, but it too is used to paint Saul in a poor light, emphasising his paranoia ("he'll want my crown next". "He wants our crown, can't you see?") as well as the extent of his problems ("Father! What demons posses you?"). There is also a good deal of mad/paranoid shouting at various points in the episode.

    Storytelling Licence
    All visual interpretations of the Bible involve a degree of artistic licence, but the ways in which the narrative varies from that in 1 Samuel is fairly telling, frequently painting Saul in a worse light that the biblical text. An early example is the first time Saul attacks David. In the Bible Saul throws his spear at David, just before he goes on to allow him to marry his daughter. It's a moment of insanity, but in the Bible it occurs when David returns from de-foreskinning 200 Philistines and Saul still appears to be brooding about the failure of his plan to endanger his future son-in-law. Later when Michal protects David by claiming he is ill, it's Saul himself who barges into Michal's room, rather than sending one of his men. It implies a kind of driven madness that is simply not their in the biblical account.

    Another occasion when the programme pushes a little beyond the biblical account is when David "spares" Saul's life. In both accounts of this in 1 Samuel Saul repents and calls David his son. In the first account (ch.24) he even weeps. In this film however Saul remains annoyed and angry about the incident and shows no remorse. Finally, Saul's suicide in 1 Samuel happens as Saul is fleeing and pressed hard by the battle. He seems to kill himself to avoid the punishment that the Philistines mete out to his corpse instead. Here however when Saul takes is own life he is under no particular pressure certainly not in the heat of battle.

    Visual Representation
    A few of the techniques used here also make Saul seem less sympathetic. The first is that the actor chosen to play Saul is far less attractive that the actor who plays David. There is only 4 years between the two men but whereas Langley Kirwood who plays David seems hunky and youthful, Francis Magee, who plays Saul, seems old an haggard. Magee's demeanour doesn't really help matters, he sneers and hardly ever smiles.

    The camera-work also adds an extra dimension here. Saul is often shot using a hand-held camera, for example in one scene when he is tossing and turning on the bed. Later on he prays and this time not only is a hand-held camera used it is held at a low angle and extremely close up, giving a real air of madness to Saul's attempts to reconnect with God.

    I'm not sure why this episode stuck in my mind as it did. Perhaps it is just the way that for all the things that are going on around him Magee manages to find some humanity in Saul and help us find some pity for him. But perhaps it's just the way in which a number of small changes all pointing in a certain direction seem to go above and beyond what seems, to me at least, an already harsh assessment in the pages of 1 Samuel.


    Whilst I'm here I noticed a few other things in this issue not relating to the main issue discussed above. The first is when David enters Jerusalem a hero and petals rain down on him from the buildings above. It's noticeable for two reasons, firstly I'm not sure we know about the kind of buildings the Israelites were living in at this point - they had yet to conquer Jebus - but this kind of multi-storey courtyard seems a little far-fetched. It's also noteworthy because this shot is repeated (I believe) in a later scene where one of David's descendants (Jesus) also parades into a city and is greeted by a shower of petals. Later Jesus enters the same courtyard on the way to Golgotha, but this time is only treated with derision. Again, if memory serves the raining petals motif is something borrowed from Last Temptation of Christ.

    Speaking of visual nods to Bible films gone by, there is an awful lot of similarity between the wooden screens Bathsheba gets changed behind in this film and in 1951's David and Bathsheba. Interestingly Bathsheba is also involved in the scene where the ark is brought into Jerusalem. It takes a bit of re-arrangement to make this happen (in 2 Samuel David's affair with Bathsheba is five chapters after the ark has been brought into the city), but it does throw fresh light onto why David's dancing was undignified and why his first wife, Michal, was not best pleased.

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    Tuesday, January 28, 2014

    Rei Davi [King David] (2012)

    Of all the films about David easily the most ambitious is Rei Davi. Indeed with 30 episodes and perhaps as much as 20 hours of footage it's probably the most ambitious project to film the Bible that has successfully been brought to fruition. The series was created by Brazilian company Rede Record, though is perhaps best known in the US for a run on the Spanish-language channel Mundofox as El Rey David.

    Whilst all of the episodes appear to be on both YouTube and Dailymotion only the first two episodes appear to be available with English subtitles. That's enough however to get a bit of a feel for the series.

    I mentioned in my review of the Greatest Heroes of the Bible's version of David and Goliath that one of the strengths of that version was how focussing on only one main incident made for an engaging narrative arc. This works for Rei Davi as well, only by covering one main incident in every episode it's able to maintain that narrative tension within that episode, but also be part of a broader coherent story which is able develop characters and sub-plots weaving together a grander tapestry than even a very long film can achieve.

    Focussing on one incident per episode really allows the stories to build up. Normally, for example, there's not much plot in David being anointed by Samuel (episode 1) or him being brought to play music for Saul (episode 2), but both episodes gradually build up the story and bring real interest to it. Episode 1 for example explores the tension's in Jesse's household, in a way that parallels the story of Jacob and Esau as well that of Joseph and his brothers. Eliab is the mighty warrior, beloved of his father, whilst Jesse scorns young David who is still very much under his mother's wing. David being anointed king does not sit well with either his brother or his father. Indeed there's a bit of a cliff hanger at the end of the second episode as Eliab is tempted to tell Saul that his new musician is actually the person who has been anointed as the future king.

    The production values seem reasonably high as well. There are a few special effects but generally they serve the needs of the story rather than feeling as forced as they do in some other Bible series. The costumes seem OK and whilst the filters aren't seem a little more basic that UK/US audiences are used to they don't detract from some good lighting and camera placings. And whilst the odd actor chews the scenery - most notably Gracindo Júnior as a raving mad King Saul - overall the performances are pretty decent.

    One particularly impressive performance is that of Leandro Léo as the young David who often manages to balance opposing emotions at the same time. His David blends confidence with humility. He's hurt by the way his father disregards him, but he refuses to be pushed into hatred, sulking or self pity. It gives a level of credibility to his later battle with Goliath - a nicely taught affair - where his unshakeable confidence never towers over his very reasonable fear.

    Hopefully the whole series will find itself translated sooner or later, whether on DVD or online, as I think it could easily become addictive viewing and there's plenty of evidence in these first two episodes to suggest it might well reward anyone who manages to put aside the 15 plus hours to watch it in its entirety.


    Sunday, January 26, 2014

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: David and Goliath (1978)

    The latest in this series of films about David is this entry from The Greatest Heroes of the Bible series and I have to say it exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. Perhaps the main reason for this is the filmmakers decision to limit the story to that of the battle between David and Goliath. As a single narrative the film comes to a natural climax which provides tension throughout, even though the audience know all along who will win. This contrasts with some of the other David films which cover most of what we know about him leaving the storyline more as a series of episodes but without a great deal uniting the various threads or driving the plot.

    As with the other entries in the series, the film starts with a two and a half minute introduction to the Bible, which starts with the authoritative "In the beginning...". What follows is equally authoritative in tone but it moves from being actual words from the Bible, to a paraphrase of what the Bible says, to it's own modern take on the Bible.

    In some ways that's the opposite of what happens once the film starts properly. The opening scenes are all essentially extra-biblical - there's a huge sub=plot about Abner's plan to use David's bout with Goliath as a distraction which will allow his guerilla army to sneak up undetected on the unsuspecting Philistines. Then gradually the film moves more into ground that is more firmly biblical, ending on David killing Goliath.

    One of the biblical sounding additions is when David actually hears God's voice telling him to fight Goliath. It's an interesting addition - the only David film which I recall making the link between David's bravery and God's will so explicit. Typically the bravery aspect is played up, making David seem more heroic, whilst alleviating the issue of David killing and beheading an enemy.

    Another interesting way in which the programme makes subtle additions is a brief shot from Goliath's point of view. Again this is fairly rare, and it's notable not just because other films haven't really done it, but also because of the unusual angle that it uses. In fact of all the David films this is perhaps the one that is most sympathetic to Goliath. Apart from anything he is played by the most well known actor in the cast, Ted Cassidy, best known for playing Lurch in The Adams Family. Cassidy is undoubtedly tall (6'9"), but he doesn't appear as mighty as the majority of Goliaths, indeed he looks rather awkward.

    There are also elements of the Joseph story imported in here. When David's brothers hear it is he who is to tackle Goliath they implore Abner to let them fight Goliath in his place.

    The battle itself is also a little unusual. It's rather drawn out and the "sword, spear and javelin" line from 1 Sam 17:45 is played out rather literally as Goliath throws his spear and javelin at David before producing his sword. The fight scene is also intercut with shots of Abner's men sneaking into position. Whilst this whole sub-plot is rather ludicrous - not least because it seems to undermine the impression of being biblically faithful that the production seems to strive for - it has to be said that these intercut scenes, and the score do ratchet up the tension.

    Once his men are in position Abner blows his horn, David goes on the attack as do the Israelite army. There's a battle which might have culminated in a battle between the rather aged Saul and the Philistine king, were it not so feeble. Nevertheless, it's a more decent production than I would have imagined and at only 40 minutes worth seeing.


    Saturday, January 18, 2014

    The Story of David (1976)

    Somewhere in the 70s someone decided it was OK to do away with even the pretence of authenticity in casting biblical films and just go for sun-bleached blonds instead. So we get Ted Neeley and the super-blond Robert Elfstrom playing Jesus in 1973, Blanche Baker and Jeff East taking the lead roles in Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith and, as the decade wore on, a whole range of implausibly Anglo-Saxon actors taking all manner of roles in the Greatest Heroes of the Bible.

    So whilst Timothy Bottoms and Keith Mitchell are, admittedly, not quite as yellowy as Elfstrom, the casting director certainly can't have ranked "Middle Eastern looking" too highly on her list of attributes required to play history's most famous Jewish king. That's not all that will stand out to modern viewers, either. The photography is, perhaps, best described as "very seventies": it's all Instagrammy high exposure and lemon tinting, making the Kingdom of Israel seem surprisingly innocent for a world where at any moment you could get asked to whip up 100 foreskins as a dowry.

    Sadly that incident is one of the few that The Story of David leaves out (although a rather icky bag is handed out after David's return). At roughly three hours, there's pleasingly good coverage of David's life, and the filmmakers make good use of the two-part format by dealing with events in 1 Samuel in part 1 and covering the events of 2 Samuel in episode 2.

    One of the film's big selling points is it's cast. In addition to Bottoms and Mitchell in the title role there are three big name actors, Jane Seymour, Brian Blessed and Anthony Quayle. Quayle's portrayal of Saul is the most memorable performance. Both the Bible itself and many of the other films about David portray Saul in a poor light, but Quayle's performance combines with the scripts best writing to give real sympathy to the Benjamite monarch, reticent to carry out the inhumane actions that Samuel demands after years of service. Later when Saul needs David's music to calm him, he's clearly afflicted. It's a moment of sympathy when so often this scene is used to buttress the reasons why Saul needed to be replaced by his son in law.

    One of the other highlights is the film's attempts to grapple with the complexities of the David the King. Having won the throne he has to deal with the rivalries between Abner and Joab, and between Amnon and Absalom, not to mention Absalom's attempt to wrestle power away from his father. But in reality these episodes are merely notable rather than engaging or insightful. Similarly the affair with Jane Seymour's Bathsheba is of little interest.

    Ultimately, then, it's a mixed bag. The camera work, compositions are workmanlike, aside from Quayle the acting is mundane and the writing is occasionally quite clunky. And whilst a lack of visual authenticity does not necessarily prevent a film from illuminating its subject it's nigh on impossible to forget that this is just a bunch of Americans running around in California with a camera.


    Thursday, January 16, 2014

    David et Goliath (1910)

    (Warning: sometimes I write well, intelligently and interestingly. Other times I seem to be more driven by a desire to record everything, even if it's dull and meandering so at least I know where to find it if I ever need to. Sadly for all concerned this is one of those latter occasions.)

    I'm doing some writing on film portrayals of King David at the moment so I thought it was about time I wrote up my notes on Pathé's David et Goliath from 1910. There was a rush of short films about David at the time with six films about David being released in as many years (the others being David and Goliath in 1908, Saul and David in 1909, David and Saul in 1911, David, King of Israel in 1912, and La Mort de Saül in 1913).

    David et Goliath is the only one I have seen however, although the fact that Solomon1 (p.166) discusses the Italian made David, King of Israel and Shepherd2 (p.66-68) discusses Blackton's Saul and David means that prints of those two films are still in existence. As far as I can tell however David et Goliath does appear to be the only one which you can view online (parts 1, 2 and 3). The online version comes with French intertitles whereas the version in the BFI archives has German intertitles. As it was there I first encountered it - and diligently wrote down all the intertitles it is those I'll refer to, though I'm not convinced that the intertitles all say the same things.

    It's also worth noting that the German version has been produced using some kind of early colour process (hence the image above) whereas the French version is in black and white. The appearance is similar to that of early two-strip Technicolor, but as that wasn't yet in existence then it looks like it was made using either Lee-Turner Colour, Kinemacolor or the Keller-Dorian process. (The Kinemacolor Wikipedia entry lists 262 films made using the process but this isn't one of them.)

    Unusually the film starts with a close up of some of the leading actors, the French version shows the actors playing David, Goliath and Saul, whereas the German version only includes Goliath and Saul. As was typical at the time the rest of the film only comprises mid-shots so these are the only close ups in the picture. The close ups are proceeded by each actor's billing (though the German print only starts after Goliath's introduction.

    Following the introductory shot of Saul we get the first intertitle proper.
    Die Philister haben
    Den Israeliten den Krieg
    Erklärt, und die drei
    Brüder Davids ergreifen
    die waffen

    The Philistines declare war on the Israelites and David's three brothers take weapons.
    This preceeds a scene of David and his brothers are sitting around which is absent from the French version. David plays the harp, Jesse wears an alarmingly short robe and Samuel arrives giving the early 20th century gestures for "quit playing that harp I have a message from God". More messengers arrive and read from a scroll resulting in a two columned intertitle designed like a scroll.
    Sohn Israels!
    Die Philister sine
    in dein Land eingedrugen
    Der König
    mendet sich an dich
    damit durch deinen
    Hut die Ehre deines
    Gottes gerellel werde
    There seem to be quite a few errors between what I noted down and correct German, some of which is probably my poor quality transcription, but there are translation errors in some of these intertitles as well, so here is what it seems the intertitle should be trying to say and an English translation
    [Sohn Israels! Die Philister sein in dein Land eingedrungen Der König wendet sich an dich damit durch deinen mut die Ehre deines Gottes gerettet werde Saul]

    Son of Israel! The Philistines have invaded your land. The King turns to you so that by your courage the glory of your God will be saved. Saul
    The older sons are sent off to war and David tries to go too, but Jesse stops him, putting his arm around his shoulders. A heartbroken David sits down and pleads to go but Samuel also intervenes.

    The next intertitle introduces the next scene of David looking after the sheep
    “David Verteidigit
    Seine herde gegen
    die raubtiere"

    [David Verteidigt Seine herde gegen die raubtiere]
    David defends his herd against predators
    The "predator" in question turns out to to be a wolf, bear or lion, but an eagle. It's a surprising divergence (do eagles poach sheep frequently enough for this scene to be credible. Perhaps it was just that the fake eagle seemed more credible than a fake lion / bear / wolf. Perhaps composition required an aerial threat rather than another woolly mammal trying to stand out amongst all those sheep. Either way David brings it down with his sling and Jesse is so pleased he allows him to head to the front with a basket of bread for his brothers.
    “Im auftrage
    seines vaters bringt
    David seinen brüdern,
    Sauls soldaten,

    David on behalf of his father brings his brothers, Saul's soldiers, food.
    There's an oddly comedic scene here (also absent from the French version) where some boys hide and steal David bread. Fortunately David whips out his sling, fells one of them and gets his brad back.

    David then arrives at the camp waving into the distance. Meanwhile some of the soldiers grab weapons and line up.
    Goliath Schlägt
    Saul einen
    Einzelkampf vor

    Goliath beats Saul before single combat
    I'm not entirely sure what the meaning of this sentence is so I've left it rather literally. Essentially though it's followed by Goliath strolling into camp and shouting (in tablet form):
    König Saul!
    Erwählet einen unter
    euch, der mit mir
    Kämpfe, Vermag er
    wider mich zu streilen
    und schlägt er
    mich, so wallen wir
    eure Knechte sein,
    schlage ich aber ihn, so sollt
    ihr unsere Knechte sein.
    In zwei Studen erwarte
    ich meinen Gegner

    [König Saul! Erwählet einen unter euch, der mit mir Kämpfe, Vermag er wider mich zu streiken und schlägt er mich, so wollen wir eure Knechte sein, schlage ich aber ihn, so sollt ihr unsere Knechte sein. In zwei stunde erwarte ich meinen Gegner]

    King Saul! Chose one of you, with me fighting, he is able to strike against me, and he beats me, then will we be your servants: but I kill him, then shall ye be our servants. In two hour I expect my opponent
    Seeing Goliath leave, David is ashamed. Saul begins his hunt for a champion, but only David is willing:
    Es entfalle keine,
    menschen das herz um
    deswillen dein knecht
    will hingehen und
    mit de Philister straiten

    Let no man's heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with the Philistine
    There are quite a lot of extra subtitles in the French version than in the German, which disrupts the story for anyone that knows it. David offers himself and points to the sky and then in the next scene comes face to face with Goiath.
    David sprach zu Goliath:
    Du kommst zu mir mit
    Schwert, Spieß und Schild;
    Ich aber komme zu dir im
    namen des hernn zebaoth
    des Gottes ISraels den
    du Gehöhnet hast

    [David sprach zu Goliath: Du kommst zu mir mit Schwert, Spieß und Schild; Ich aber komme zu dir im namen des herr zebaoth des Gottes Israels den du Gehöhnet hast]

    David said to Goliath:
    "You come to me with sword, spear and shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel whom you have defied"
    Thus David reveals that he is the challenger. Goliath mocks him of course, raising his arms whilst David prays desperately to God. The two circle each other for a while using the depth of field in a way that was not that well established at the time so that by the time David fires the vital shot, Goliath is closest to the camera. Goliath falls, writhes and dies.

    The final scene shows David processing through the town on a horse. He wears a crown on his head whilst a minion follows at a respectable distance with Goliath's head on a stick. Again there are more subtitles in the French version, the last of which ends by citing Samuel 1 - 2 Ch 32.

    Campbell and Pitts describe it as follows:
    1000 feet B/W
    CAST Berthe Bovy, René Alexander, L.Ravet.
    Another in the series of French Pathé films adapted from Old Testament stories. This version of David's slaying of the giant Goliath, at 1,000 feet, was a bit longer than most of the series entries.
    The BFI archive has a synopsis for this film rolling two descriptions into one very long one so I'll just provide the link on this occasion.

    1 - Solomon, Jon. "The Ancient World in the Cinema", (Revised and expanded edition). Yale University Press, 2001 p.166
    2 - Shepherd, David J., "The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema", Cambridge University Press, 2013. pp 66-68.

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    Friday, January 03, 2014

    Belshazzar's Feast (1905)

    Le festin de Balthazar (Belshazzar's Feast - 1905) is one of three short films made by Pathé that were also packaged as the one-reeler Martyrs chr&eacutetiens (also 1905), and of the three it is undoubtedly the most interesting and technically accomplished. Whilst the other two films, Les martyrs and Daniel dans la fosse aux lions, are essentially just a more exciting way in which to present lion-tamer footage, Balthazar is marked by an impressive matte shot that allows for both the film's villain and the mysterious hand to appear in the same shot.

    It makes for a rather awkward composition of course. The giant hand and the words it writes dominate the left of the screen; Belshazzar's party are squished into the right. The shortness of the footage relies on using a large chez lounge to highlight which character Belshazzar is, not to mention that for this to really pass as a feast for 1000 (Dan 5:1 NRSV) Belshazzar has to be surrounded by courtesans, dancers and drinking buddies for the scene to work. And then of course there is the arrival of the Median army who burst into that same shot through the large doors in the middle.

    What's fascinating is that the order in which the cinematic innovations appear to have taken place. In 1905 films were almost entirely composed of long, static mid-shots, as if the cameraman were watching a play. Montage, inter-cutting and close ups were really still a thing of the future. Yet, remarkably, matte shots (including this one which actually utilises a close up) were in use, even though most modern viewers would assume they would be more advanced.

    And then there's the use of filters, well known to those familiar with the films of this era, but here swapped in the middle of the scene, with dramatic effect. The "sky" turns from serene blue to a foreboding red at the very moment the hand appears on the wall.

    The other interesting point about this film is that the hero of the original text - Daniel - doesn't really make an appearance. Even before Belshazzar has had a chance to get an interpretation of this strange sign, the Medes are upon him and Babylon has fallen.

    The BFI synopsis of the film credits Lucien Nonguet as the director and offers the following summary:
    DRAMA. Historical. Based on the Old Testament Book of Daniel, Chapter 5. Belshazzar indulges in a lavish feast, surrounded by women, and plied with wine. Suddenly, he perceives a vast, disembodied hand, tracing writing on the wall in a strange language. He is filled with foreboding, and falls back on his couch. A moment later, armed Medes burst in, and carry off the women, and King Belshazzar is slain (123). The End (130 ft).

    Campbell and Pitts also discuss the film (p.1)
    1 reel B/W
    Taken from the Book of Daniel, this short theatrical film told of the court of Belshazzar in ancient Babylon and included the Biblical account of the handwriting on the wall. The film was remade, with the same title, by the French Gaumont studio in 1913

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    Tuesday, December 24, 2013

    Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith

    It's long been the policy of this blog to try and focus on a film's positives, rather than picking apart their many negatives. After all, with a genre like this, it would be rather like shooting fish in a barrel.

    It's an approach that is sorely tested sometimes so it's fortunate for fans of Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979) that it's also Christmas, the spirit of good cheer. So please don't remotely take the overall tone of what follows as any kind of endorsement.

    So let me get my main criticism out of the way first of all: it's a very odd decision to make a Nativity film which is around two and a half hours long and then to cram in everything bar the annunciation into the last 18 minutes. Whilst this isn't quite the longest of the film's about Jesus' birth (that honour belongs to Ermano Olmi's Cammina, Cammina at 152 minutes, it shouldn't end feeling rushed.

    The most interesting aspect of the film is the way it prefigures key events in Jesus' life by showing similar events happening to his ancestors. (Spoilers) The most significant of these is the crucifixion of Mary's father Joachim after critising King Herod to a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Herod himself in disguise (remember, it's Christmas). There's an obvious link between Joachim's death and that of his grandson, but it also shows Mary watching the death of a key male relative. Given Joachim's opposition to violent resistance against Herod and the Romans, his death also seems unjustified, the death of a man of peace on a cross.

    This tendency pops up in other places too. Shortly after his death Mary is visiting Joachim's grave when the angel appears to her, but their conversation is prefacced by the words "Woman why area you crying" - the words Jesus speaks to another Mary at the tomb. Elsewhere Mary prays "into your hands I commit my soul", Joseph receives a flogging, and when he is released from the flogging post there is a brief Pieta.  (End spoilers)

    The other aspect of the film that caught my attention is the way Mary communicates her vision to Joseph. Instead of keeping it to herself until she is starting to show, she tells him about the vision immediately, meaning Joseph's initial concern is for Mary's sanity rather than her unfaithfulness, and it sheds an interesting light on Joseph's plans to "break off the engagement quietly".

    Visually the choice of sets is really interesting. Having seen Matera and Ouarzazate used so often for biblical locations, it was interesting to see a different approach, the use of caves, particulalrly in close proximity to built housing gave the film a really different feel. The odd use of white, if not blond, actors, whilst clearly erroneous, also added to a nostalgic innocence that permeates the film. Unfortunately it also means that the film just feels far too cheesy in places, even at Christmas.


    Tuesday, December 10, 2013

    Joseph, King of Dreams (2000)

    Back in 1998, The Prince of Egypt was a surprise hit, not only turning in a profit, but launching a whole new animated studio to challenge the dominance of Disney. Hardly surprising, then, that two years later Dreamworks sought to cash in on their successful début by adding another film in the series, Joseph, King of Dreams.

    At the time the term "prequel" was on the ascendency - Star Wars: The Phantom Menance was released just a year earlier. The fledging studio must have considered it made good sense. Having escaped from Egypt the story of the former Hebrew slaves is far less suitable for a children's film - 40 years in the desert lacks dramatic promise and Joshua's conquest of Canaan could hardly be classified as kiddie friendly. The Joseph story however was not only more suitable, but allowed the studio to rework some of what made the original film succeed, with the promise of more moving hieroglyphics and soaring, dramatic architecture.

    Sadly, it was an unmitigated disaster. Joseph falls well short of both the quality and the entertainment of its predecessor. Furthermore, far from offering an additional, tidy, return, the film was released straight to video - still the only Dreamworks film to carry that particular stigma.

    There are three main reasons why Joseph fails. Firstly, as if anticipating a lesser return, Dreamworks clearly cut corners. Whilst both Ben Affleck and Mark Hamill are relatively big names, the rest of the cast was largely unknown. In comparison Prince of Egypt boasted at least ten major stars. And whilst much of the animation is of a similar, if not better, standard, one or two of the dreams are rendered so poorly that they cast a shadow over the rest of the film. History has not been kind to turn of the century CGI, but even at the time Pharaoh's cows would give anyone nightmares. Corner cutting such as this isn't necessarily that obvious, but it often has the effect of permeating through a whole film, leaving it flat without any one thing clearly being out of place.

    Ironically, the film's second major problem derives from those very aspects of Prince of Egypt which won it such acclaim. Again we have scenes of wall paintings coming to life and these are complemented nicely by some excellent early dream sequences. The problem is that these aspects were so striking and notable in the original movie that, here, they just feel derivative and unoriginal. There's a reason most magicians don't do their tricks more than once to the same audience: it's easier to reproduce a really good trick than it is to reproduce the experience of seeing it for the first time.

    Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film, though, is the music. I read a quote recently that attributed 70% of film to the music. Whilst the occasional song in Prince of Egypt is a little mawkish, generally the music is pretty strong - the opening scenes in particular. Here almost all of the songs are dreary, forgettable, sub-par pop ballads, performed with very little heart or invention. It drags the film down again and again and leaves it bereft of soaring high points.

    Which isn't too say it's all bad. Most of the animation is very good: indeed, one or two of the pieces of it are stunning. The Van Gogh inspired sequences with the sunflowers are particularly impressive. The characterisation is also fairly strong. Joseph's (voiced by Ben Affleck's) transition from spoilt brat to mature and forgiving man is well worked, relying on both a process and a epiphany or sorts.

    It's also good to see an animated family film that doesn't have to resort to cute animals or fart jokes. Whilst Joseph has it's faults, there's never a moment that could have been improved by the simple addition of a cat with a quirky sense of humour. And if there is, perhaps, one too many montage it's almost forgiveable given the sleek efficiency with which they are executed. The opening song - miracle child is a particularly good example.

    So whilst King of Dreams is no match for Prince of Egypt, it's a lot better than some of the films that Dreamworks have turned out subsequently. Ultimately, though, it's biggest problem is that it leaves you wishing you had watched the Moses film instead.

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    Saturday, November 30, 2013

    My Review of The Bible is Online

    The History Channel's miniseries The Bible finally arrives in the UK tonight tucked away on Channel 5. I've written a few bits and pieces on some of the episodes here, but my main review of the series as a whole has just gone up at Ken Morefield's 1 More Film Blog. Ken was kind enough to provide me with review copies of the DVDs. I may post a few more thoughts on the episodes as the series progresses.


    Tuesday, November 12, 2013

    El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong)

    El Can't Dels Ocells means Birdsong, but there's barely a bird to be seen, let alone heard. It's also about the three kings, but their royalty is similarly silent. This is perhaps the least monarchical depiction of Jesus' royal visitors that I can recall, including those in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo.

    Pasolini's film has clearly had great influence on Birdsong's director Albert Serra. The starkly beautiful black and white photography, the use of ordinary looking actors and the stripped down feel are all very reminiscent of Pasolini's masterpiece. There's even an angelic figure, portrayed by a young woman, wearing a white dress that looks like it was made from a sheet.

    Yet Serra dares to go further still. As iconographic as his images are, he humanises the three kings further than Pasolini ever dared. They bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They meander their way around the opening half of the film as if their only hope is that sooner or later Odetta will launch into "Sometime I feel like a Motherless Child". But this time she never does.

    The film, with its long, static takes is reminiscent of the style of another great Italian, neorealist, Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini believed such takes created the most genuine films. Not only is the footage shorn of any artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, but it also serves to remind the viewer from time to time that this is just a film. A reconstruction, not the real thing.

    The result of the Serra's long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack is not unlike viewing a series of paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with such meaning from so little.

    So low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment creeps up without you really noticing. When the kings finally arrive there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. It's a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters.

    Yet for all it's demystifying of the royal trio, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage. And somehow the lack of an answer only drew me into the film more. It's very much in keeping with the transcendental style of film typified by directors such as Bresson and Dryer - the spirituality which permeates the film does so almost because of its meditative pace and lack of action.

    El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong) is an incredibly slow film in which nothing happens. And I feel all the better for having seen it.

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    Tuesday, October 29, 2013

    The Bible and Writing Coherrently

    I've been meant to be writing a proper piece on the History Channel's The Bible miniseries for quite a time now, but on top of having too much else to do and exhaustion to contend with, I now find myself with a major case of writer's block. Fun times. Getting those first few opening lines has never really been my strength as a writer, but this piece, in particular, is proving a major challenge.

    So I thought I'd hash out a few thoughts here in the hope that it will at least get something going, or help anyone who hasn't visited my blog for quite a while to see that, yes, I do still produce content, right?

    One thing that has really stood out to me about this film is the opening disclaimer that flashes up at the start of every episode.
    This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavours to stay true to the spirit of the book.
    I've thought a fair bit about both sentences, but one thing I've really been thinking about is the staying "true to the spirit of the book" bit. The first thing to say is that it's a little unclear whether this is the spirit of the book or the Spirit of the Book. An all-caps font is used and whilst (proper) "capital letters" are very slightly larger, and the "S" doesn't appear to be, I could be wrong. The use of Spirit rather than spirit is fairly significant in this situation. Every adaptation is judged by whether or not it has stayed true to the "spirit of the book". But a capital would suggest the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead. Staying true to that is rather different.

    But of course the Bible - as smart aleck Bible teachers are also so keen to tell us - is not a book, it's a collection of 66+. And whilst the same "Spirit" might be behind them all, it's by no means a forgone conclusion that the same spirit is behind them all. The spirit of Ecclesiastes, say, is very different from the spirit of Acts, or Leviticus or Revelation. Stylistically it makes sense to talk about acoherence. David's psalms don't feel the same as Jesus' parables, which differ again from Moses' purity laws. This is how it should be.

    All of which raises some interesting questions when it comes to one program trying to cover a significant proportion of the Bible. How coherent should the visual style of the different sections be? What about acting style? Editing? Pacing and so on?

    The 1990s series Testament: The Bible in Animation faced these questions by making the different sections in completely different forms. Some were stop-motion animation, others hand-drawn, but even the hand-drawn entries used a variety of styles, from the operatically delivered Elijah episode to the spiky elongated figures of the Moses entry.

    As with other, similar, projects such as The Living Bible and The Greatest Heroes of the Bible, the decision made for The Bible has been to adopt what is essentially the same style for each section. Visually this has been the grungy-with-perfect-teeth approach to costume design with the same grungy filters used on the cameras. Scene length has tended to be about 2-3 minutes. Shot length has tended to be fairly fast - frenetically disorientating at times. Camera work has often been fairly dramatic and showy. The diegetic soundtrack is quite dominant at times.

    All of the above and a lot more give the production a sense of coherence. Anyone who, having watched last weeks episode, finds themself tuning in late will know they had reached the right programme instantly despite having leapt from the Babylonian era to the Roman one.

    It could, of course, be argued that the parts of the Bible that this series shows us are all essentially a variation on the historical narrative. That, in itself, is a good enough justification for formal coherence. It's notable, for example, that whilst The Bible Collection varies its style in episodes such as the Apocalypse one and the creation one the styles are far more divergent than they are for the majority of the series.

    Nevertheless, the coherence isn't just an accident, it's a deliberate choice, and a choice that makes a far clearer statement about the Bible's unity than the series' dialogue ever could or would.


    Wednesday, October 23, 2013

    Joseph films for Church Use

    A while back, one of the churches I'm involved with has asked me about good clips for use in a series on Joseph. I've been flat out recently, so I suspect I'm too late to be of any use, but I thought I'd highlight a couple of films that might be useful for churches looking at Joseph.

    Compared to some biblical characters, Joseph hasn't actually had that many films made about him, and there are still a few I need to see. Chief amongst these is 1974's The Story of Jacob and Joseph (sometimes called simple Jacob and Joseph), starring Colleen Dewhurst amongst others, which sits unwatched on my shelves. It's got 7.1 on IMDb suggesting it's better than average for the time, period and subject, but I suspect it probably is still a little too shabby for public use.

    There were a number of silent films on the subject, most notably La Sacra Bibbia (The Sacred Bible): The Story of Joseph in Egypt (my review). The first Genesis film was one about Joseph, the French Vendu Par Ses Frères (Joseph Sold by his Brothers) made in 1904. IMDb turns up a couple of others both from 1914 - Joseph in the Land of Egypt and Joseph's Trials in Egypt. (Campbell and Pitts list date Joseph in the Land of Egypt as 1915). None of these three are commercially available.

    There were then a string on Joseph films in the 1960s, predictably two coming out of Italian studios - Giuseppe Venduto Dei Fratelli [Joseph Sold by his Brothers] (1960), I Patriarch Della Bibbia [The Patriarchs of the Bible] (1963) - as well as a couple of Israeli films - the puppet animated Joseph and his Brethren (1962) and Joseph the Dreamer (1967). The story is also covered by the Living Bible series (1957 - Joseph, The Young Man and Joseph, Ruler of Egypt, ) and the Greatest Heroes of the Bible series (1978 - Joseph and his Brothers).

    However, all these films are probably too dated for modern audiences. Some people in those church groups might find them interesting, but as all generations become increasingly more media literate, the above films seem increasingly archaic and unintentionally humorous. So realistically we need to look to the modern era. A neat division is made here by the absence of any Joseph films from the 1980s.

    Al-Mohager [The Emigrant] (1994)
    Whilst the film's subtitles will mean that this film is probably not going to work for most congregations, it's probably the best of the films about Joseph in my opinion. It's been five years since I saw it, but as I mentioned in my review at the time, it's the one version of this story that actually makes me care for the protagonist.

    The Bible Collection: Joseph (1995)
    This entry (also known as Joseph in Egypt) is arguably one of the best in the Bible Collection Series - it did, after all, win an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. Much of that is down to Ben Kingsley's portrayal as Potiphar, although Paul Mercurio's (Strictly Ballroom) turn in the lead role and a strong supporting cast (Martin Landau, Monica Bellucci, Warren Clarke and Lesley Ann Warren) also helped. At 3 hours long you would expect it to cover most of the story's main episodes, although it's been so long since I saw it that I can't remember. Peter Chattaway fleshes things out a bit in his thoughts on the series.

    Testament (1996)
    I've reviewed much of the Testament:Biblein Animation series in recent years, but this is one episode it's been a while since I saw. It's one of the few puppet animated entries in the series and so will work well for kids, although that usually puts off the adults who fail to realise that this is animation made primarily for adults. So whilst it's a succinct and relatively thorough account of the story, with all of Testament's usual technical excellence, I'd advise potential users to think about how it will be received.

    Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)
    If you wanted to go for campy humour value then look no further. This 1999 recording of Rice and Webber's stage show camps it up to the max, but even so the final result is exceptionally poor. There's perhaps some credit to the casting of Joan Collins as Potiphar's wife - genuinely terrifying - and the songs are (annoyingly) memorable, but even the straighter Jason Donovan version of the stage show brings little but an easy laugh.

    In the Beginning (2000)
    Landau pops up again in Joseph's ancestory, but here he's playing his Great Grandfather Abraham (rather than his dad Jacob as in the Bible Collection). The film is pretty poor, but the Joseph scenes are not the worst of it.

    Joseph, King of Dreams (2000)
    King of Dreams is the prequel to the hugely successful Prince of Egypt so the fact it went straight to DVD speaks volumes. That said there are some notable successes, primarily the early scenes of Joseph's dreams, which are visualised in the same breathtaking style that won so many plaudits in Prince of Egypt. It's also notable for some voice work by Mark Hamill, although it's Ben Affleck who voices the hero. For whatever reason I do remember this one rather fondly and so have a hunch that had it been made today, with the popularity of sequels being what it is, it probably would have got a proper cinematic release. That's why it would be one of my recommendations to look at and why I'll be revisiting it with my children shortly.

    It's also surprising to look at the films that don't include the Joseph story. For all it's boats about it's long running time, this year's The Bible almost completely ignores Joseph. Another interesting film not to include the story here is Cheick Oumar Sissoko's La Genèse which is written during the time that Joseph is in Egypt, but written about the exploits of the rest of the family in his absence. There is of course reference to what has happened, and the film does a powerful job of portraying Jacob's grief, but essentially this is a film about Joseph made through his absence rather than his presence. Also falling into the close-but-no-cigar category are Huston's 1966 The Bible, Year One and The Real Old Testament all of which stop in the time of Joseph's father/grandfather.

    Overall then, for church use, I'd cautiously suggest checking out the Bible Collection's Joseph miniseries and having a look at Joseph, King of Dreams and the Testament entry as well. For a film night for more discerning viewers either Al-Mohager or one of my perennial favourites La Genèse.

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    Thursday, October 03, 2013

    Jephthah in Film

    It seems like a bit of a cheat to call this piece the definitive guide to Jephthah in film; after all there are only two of them. Aside from this pair of early silent films, the complex and controversial story of Jephthah has been overlooked by filmmakers. As the cost of producing movies escalated exponentially from the very early silent era to today, so the financial risk in making films has increased, leaving producers uneasy about adopting subjects which even the majority of those interested in the Bible find unpalatable. In short increasing spectacle nudged filmmakers towards an increased conservatism, and so whilst some filmmakers have persisted in seeking support to explore difficult, insular and challenging material, such as Jephthah, they tend not to adapt conservative material such as the Bible. Even those who have done (Huston, Pasolini, Rosellini, Scorsese and Arcand) have tended to opt towards the more popular stories rather than those of the more obscure characters from lesser known Old Testament histories, Amos Gitai being a notable exception.

    As a result to date we are left with only two Jephthah films, or, to be more correct, only two films about Jephthah's daughter. The distinction is not just in order to reflect that both films (1909 and 1913) share that title, but also because both films can be seen to be more about this unnamed widow that her rash and barbaric father.

    The distinction is easier to appreciate with the later film. There are a few excellent shots of Jephthah during the battle -his vow to God as the battle rages down behind him and that of him stealthily creeping past the camera a little while later - but his recall to the leadership of the Gileadites, or his account of Hebrew history to his enemy are omitted and replaced with the fictional story of his daughters attempted elopement during her tour of the mountains.

    As melodrama it is overwrought and non-sensical: the affair ends in Romeo-and-Juliette-esque tragedy, with the only mild comfort for the viewer perhaps being the idea that Jephthah's daughter and her lover Zebah we're together in death the way they could not be in life. Yet as theology it draws attention to the face of the victim. Indeed the biblical account portrays Jephthah's daughter as the classic sacrificial victim, not only chosen for death to fulfil a bargain with a cruel God, but also a seemingly willing victim. There are other ways to read the text but what this film does is give the lump of meat for the sacrificial offering a name (well almost), a face, a personality and a story. Girard argues that the radical break that the crucifixion makes is allowing to see, for the first time, the face of the victim. This film does likewise.

    Whilst the earlier 1909 version of Jephthah's Daughter is only a mere 6 minutes long, it to goes beyond the boundaries of the original story in humanising the daughter and judging in her favour in contrast to her father's. Whilst the actor's overwrought performance on seeing his daughter is the one to be sacrificed is typical of acting styles of the time, it only serves to weaken modern audiences' connection with Jephthah heightening the characlter's apparent stupidity.

    The critical moment occurs as the flames lap around the daughter's corpse, suddenly she stands serenely erect before them glowing as if resurrected. It evokes so many other biblical stories not least Shadrach, Meshach and Abenbego miraculously survivng Nebuchudnezzar's furnace and the resurrection of Christ.

    At time of writing it is 100 years since the last film we know of about Jephthah was produced and whilst many reasons could be out forward as to why the story was never adapted again, perhaps the answer lies in the events of the following year. 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War. With stories rife of ageing political leaders sending their children out to be (often) needlessly sacrificed for the sake of military success, it is more than possible that the audience would no longer stomach pious retellings of the story of Jephthah and his daughter.

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