• 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.

    Wednesday, January 17, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 6


    This is part 5 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here
    After the focus on and death of Saul in the last episode, this episode picks up the start of the story of Saul. In comparison to the previous episodes, this one avoids a lot of the usual pitfalls. There are no big special effect moments and the violence is relatively minor compared to the rest of the series.

    Instead the episode rests heavily on the introduction of Saul and thanks to a great performance from The Fall's Emmett J Scanlan. Having watched various Acts films over the years Saul is often played as a relatively rational thoughtful man - he has to grow into the great Paul of Tarsus after all. Here, however, Scanaln is allowed to play it vert differently. Here Saul is the kind of privileged young hothead who has a bee in his bonnet about something but is so full of himself that he gets off on asserting himself violently. Saul is the kind of guy who writes angry aggressive tweets, or endlessly moans about feminists, or carries a torch in Charlottesville. He's unaware of the privilege of being a young white man in a culture where that cushions him from the reality of many people's lives. He has a massive sense of entitlement. When at first he isn't taken seriously he escalates his complaints and seeks an audience with the most powerful of his countrymen, Caiaphas. They should listen to him, right? After all he's confident and articulate, even if what he is raging about doesn't particularly form a strong argument.

    Having grown up in London during the troubles in Northern Ireland, Scanlan's Irish accent also evokes the violent religious zealotry that troubled the area at that time. There's no doubt it shouldn't - I know plenty of people from both North and South Ireland who are wonderful, compassionate, thoughtful people. But the media has given a platform to a steady stream of religious zealots with that accent in my lifetime. They're by no means representative, but nevertheless, my mind makes that shortcut even if it, too, is irrational. For me, at least, it gives an extra note to Scanlan's unhinged performance.

    I think what I most appreciate about this is that it makes me realise that the opening part of Saul's narrative has always felt a little iffy tome. The way he so quickly transitions from holding the coats during the stoning of Stephen to being the leader of a gang of thugs going round the country hunting down Christians seems disturbingly sudden. There doesn't seem to be a satisfactory reason why it is him doing this task rather than someone closer to Caiaphas or at least more prominent. The angry, yet privileged, young man driven by his irrational fears but critically left unchecked somehow makes sense of this to me. No wonder Peter and the others begin to flee.

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    Thursday, January 11, 2018

    2018's Coming Attractions


    Having reviewed 2017 last week, I thought it might be worth having a brief look ahead to what 2018 has in store for Bible Film fans. It looks like it's going to be a busy year.

    Firstly, this is because there are at least four Bible films lined up for release this year - indeed there are three that have already announced a Lent release date. The most prominent of these is likely to be Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara in the title role and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Release dates in the US have been complicated by the Weinstein affair, but it's looking like it will get a release in the UK, Italy and Germany on the 15th March.

    Quite how widely it will be distributed is another matter. On the one hand biblical epics with more minor stars (e.g. Ben Hur (2016) and last year's The Star) have passed the "Loughborough Test" (if they play at my local that's usually a sign of a fairly wide distribution) but others with big names playing Jesus, such as Last Days in the Desert (2015) barely got a release anywhere in the country.

    Another film to pass the Loughborough test, somewhat to my surprise, was 2016's Risen. The makers of that film also have a release planned for Lent Paul Apostle of Christ. James Faulkner has the leading role, in that one, though his younger self - and it appears much of this film will be told in flashback - will be played by Yorgos Karamihos. Jim Caviezel will play Luke with Joanna Whalley and John Lynch as Priscilla and Aquilla. IMDB has release dates for only two countries, the USA and the UK, the 28th and 30th March respectively.

    The third film to be looking at a release in Lent is Pureflix's Samson this too has release dates on IMDB - the 16th February in North America. There's also a date of for the UK (2nd March), but it seems unlikely to play in many places, save perhaps some church screenings. The trailer for that film is now online and I'll write a quick piece on that one shortly. It does star Rutger Hauer though, albeit not in the lead role.

    Finally, there is the fourth instalment in The Quest Trilogy, called The Christ Slayer. As with the others it's written by DJ Perry and, like last year's Chasing the Star will feature a small part for the late Rance Howard. There are no released dates for this one on the film's IMDB page, but if the release of Chasing the Star is anything to go by there will be a few screenings (literally) around Michigan swiftly backed up with an early DVD / home release schedule.

    There are also a number of books to be released this year. The one I'm most excited by is the The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film - mainly because I'm an egotist and it will feature a chapter I've written for it on the Biblical Canon on Film. There are a bunch of great writers in it though. I'm honoured to have something included alongside such luminaries as Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh and Jon Solomon as well as editor Richard Walsh.

    T&T Clark have another Bible and film volume out this year, Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum and David Shepherd. Michelle Fletcher has a chapter in both of these works.

    Slightly on a tangent, but The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak also sounds interesting with chapters on TV series such as the recent Spartacus and Xena as well as films such as Ninth Legion. I think I will be reviewing that one.

    Lastly Helen Bond has edited a fascinating sounding volume called The Bible on Television looking at TV Bible documentaries. There are a range of good contributions in that one including filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Robert Beckford

    I also have a couple of resolutions for this year. The first is to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. If 2017 taught us anything it's that even though cinema is seen as a "liberal" industry it's still a place where the voice of 50% of the population is still not adequately heard. My other resolution is to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I'll be posting more on that in due course.

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    Sunday, January 07, 2018

    Trailer for Pureflix's Samson


    I try to space out my posts here rather than doing them in one go and, to be honest, time commitments usually enforce that anyway. In any case, the result is that I've been a little slower posting about this year's forthcoming PureFlix Samson, for which the above trailer has just been released.

    For those not in the know PureFlix are a faith-based producer, who run an online Christian film content subscription service in not dissimilar fashion to Netflix. This is not their first foray into the Bible film genre, back in 2013 they produced the adaptation The Book of Daniel. (I wrote a little about that here).

    It's been a while since I wrote anything about film portrayals of Samson. Indeed the last post, prior to this one, with a Samson tag is over 8 years old. Nevertheless I watched a few since then, most memorably the episode from the History Channel's The Bible series back in 2013. Three things struck me from this trailer in particular, then.

    Firstly, we see a shot of Samson lifting the gates of Gaza. This is quite rare as I recall. Certainly it's not a part of DeMille's famous version of the story. According to my scene guide for the Bible Collection's version of this story, the incident with the prostitute from Gaza is included, but I don't recall seeing Samson lift the gates. I'll check on The Bible's version and report back. I'm also due to review the 1922 silent version shortly. For some reason, I suspect it will feature in that one.

    Secondly, the weakest aspect of DeMille's 1949 version is the scene where Samson wrestles with a lion.Not unreasonably actor Victor Mature was reluctant to be too closely involved, the final sequence featured scenes of a stunt man (who seemed a little reluctant himself) wrestling with a live lion and Mature wrestling with a fake one. It's hard to tell in the latter scenes who turns in the better actor performance...

    Finally we also get to see a brief shot of , what I presume is, the climatic scene where (and I don't want to give too much away here) Samson destroys the temple. I guess most of Pureflix's audience will know the story, but still it's unusual to see a trailer give quite this much away, even if the story in question claims to be 3000 years old.

    My good friend Peter Chattaway has also made some interesting observations, including that the trailer suggests that this film's Samson "seems to fall into the 'reluctant hero' trope" adding that "he does fight back, but usually as a way of seeking personal revenge rather than to fulfil any sort of divine destiny." He has also posted a whole group of stills in this post.

    The film is due for release on February 16th  - the first Friday after Ash Wednesday - and stars James Taylor in the lead role, with Caitlin Leahy as Delilah and Bladerunner's Rutger Hauer as Samson's father.

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    Thursday, January 04, 2018

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2017


    Occasionally at the end of one year or the start of the next I like to do a little review of the previous year. Some years it happens, some years it doesn't. If nothing else though, this year I feel a little more on top of things so given that it's been a reasonably interesting year I thought I would revive the tradition.

    Perhaps the most significant thing this year was the release of Sony's The Star. Living in a small town in the UK, it's a reasonable measure of the significance/size of a film if it plays at my local cinema and as with Ben-Hur last year, The Star did. It was also the first animated Bible film to do so since 2000's The Miracle Maker. My review is here.

    Far less widely released was the similarly themed, but more thoughtful and serious, Chasing the Star, (my review) which had a limited release in a select part of the US before a planned early release on DVD. As things worked out it was released only a few weeks before one of its stars, Rance Howard, died.

    There were a number of other cinema releases as well that were of interest to readers of this blog, even if not quite matching my typical definition of a Bible film. Technically Le fils de Joseph - which told a modern day story but with heavy biblical imagery - debuted last year, but it's main cinema run was this year. Darren Aronofsky, director 2014's Noah, ploughed a similar furrow with mother! It gained a far wider release and became one of the year's most talked about films as critics tended to either love it or hate it. Audiences stayed away more than was expected. Lastly, Martin Scorsese's Silence is definitely not a Bible film, even though it's sure to rank on many most spiritual film lists for years to come.

    Releases to DVD/Bluray/downloads and streaming have become so complicated now that I'm not going to go into them all, just to pick out the two most significant of the year. Firstly, Day of Triumph (1954) is one of those films that has been on my radar for years - one of the first times I imported a film from the US around the turn of the millennium - and it was finally released for home viewing again this year. There are plans to remaster it, but no news on that yet.

    Secondly, came the release of Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1973). At the time I heard of this I was under the impression it had never been released for home viewing, but it turns out there was a limited release a few years ago that I missed. With second hand copies of that currently going for over £200, it's good to see it get a re-release, particularly as two of Straub and Huillet's other films are included in the package. I wrote a few bits in preparation for this release last year, and I plan to write two or three more pieces on it this year, covering the opera itself, the film itself and perhaps a review of the set as a whole.

    I tend to be less interested in Bible documentaries though I make a point of seeing them if they crop up on terrestrial. I only managed to catch the PBS/Channel 5 documentary Last Days of Jesus this year. It lent rather too heavily on Simcha Jacobovici for my tastes. Next year might prove interesting in this respect as Helen Bond has edited a book about TV documentaries called "The Bible on Television", lined up for publication later this month.

    Lastly, books. The main news here was the publication of "Noah as Anithero: Darren Aronofsky's Cinematic Deluge", edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (who edited the book in which I had two chapters two years ago) and‎ Jon Morgan. It's the latest in a string of offerings from Routledge and included essays from Robert K Johnston, David Shepherd, Richard Walsh and David Tollerton. Many of the same authors will also feature in two more volumes being published this year, a similar volume on Exodus Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton and "The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film" which will feature another chapter from me.

    Two other books - a little more tangential to the core of what I cover here did catch my eye. S. Brent Plate edited the four volume "Film and Religion" as part of Routledge's "Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies" series. Not dissimilarly, Wendy I. Zierler's "Movies and Midrash: Popular Film and Jewish Religious Conversation" looked at films such as Magnolia and Memento from a Jewish perspective.

    In terms of this blog I have covered a few mini-topics through out the year. The main one was a more thorough look at Nativity films (largely out of season). But I also wrote a few pieces on the epic genre, the Resurrection on Film, A.D. The Bible Continues, Daniel films and Moses und Aron. I also staked out my intentions regarding what I'm going to be covering moving forward, which is hopefully going to lead to finishing the first draft of a book this year. Well it's a New Year's Resolution, at least...

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    Monday, January 01, 2018

    The Book of Life (1998)


    "It was the morning of December 31, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts". So ends Jesus' opening monologue in Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998). It's a moment that sums up so much about the film: the premise; actor Martin Donovan's deadpan delivery; the sharpness of the script; and it's irreverent, but not offensively so, approach to the subject matter.

    The Second Coming has been responsible for some dreadful movies, not least the original Left Behind film (2000) and The Omega Code (1999), not least because their attempts to portray the Book of Revelation's bizarre imagery in a pseudo-literal, yet modern, manner tends to make it all seem rather absurd. In contrast, Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998), takes a rather different approach, playfully toying with the imagery. 666 is just the number of a locker where Jesus stores The Book of Life, which, it turns out, is just a Macbook computer, albeit an "ancient" model made by a foreign manufacturer in Egypt.

    If that sounds like the film is about to turn into a trip to the near east to hunt out its secrets, you can rest easy. It doesn't. The film is set solely and firmly in New York. There are numerous indicators of this location, where almost all of Hartley's early work was filmed, as much for reasons of  convenience and expediency as anything else.

    Here, though, the location has a great significance. There are numerous clear indicators that the film is set in New York, even to those who have never been, the yellow cabs, the Twin Towers, the view from the Staten Island Ferry (above), the Empire State building, Subway signage, Flatiron building. As Sebastian Manley suggests "a focus on recognizable regional details and identities functions to ground the films in the familiar and particular" (Manley 103). Manley's analysis is good, particularly that "the image serves to underline the weight of responsibility borne by Jesus," and that "an image that describes the frame of mind of the protagonist" (105), but it does not go far enough. New York here has a specific role as a specific representative of Earth as a whole. Put it another way, were Jesus to return to Earth today, to a specific location, there are few other places that would seem as likely as New York - the kind of a cultural melting pot that is home to those from all nations. Where else could stake such a strong claim to be the capital of the world?

    The sense of place and location is just one of a number of characteristics that are typical in Hartley's films. Not unrelated to this is the absence of establishing shots in his films. Hartley also returns to the same actors again and again, in this case, Martin Donovan and Thomas J Ryan who had played the title role in Hartley's Henry Fool the previous year.

    For Manley, "one particularly strong mark of distinction, which has remained relatively constant across the director's filmography, is a preference for stylized performances: broadly, actors tend to adopt a 'flattened' style of line delivery, implementing few variations in either tone or facial expression." (7-8). The result of this is to shift the focus onto the characters internal emotions. Here, in particular, the film's Jesus is conflicted internally about his role in the Apocalypse, and Donovan's muted performance enables the audience to sympathise with his dilemma. This sense of sympathy is enhanced by Donovan's voiceover - another Hartley trait. Furthermore, whilst there is less focus on Magdalena (a beguiling performance from PJ Harvey) and the Devil (Thomas J Ryan), and neither of them has a typical voice over, they too deliver longer speeches in this flattened style, with a not dissimilar effect. The devil's three monologues are particularly significant, not only delivered whilst looking towards the camera, but also spoken into a visible microphone seemingly set up for that very purpose, drawing attention to the film's artificiality, whilst simultaneously making easier to understand his point of view.

    Another of Hartley's characteristics is the focus on relationships, particularly on forming what might be called alternate 'families', often in contrast to their actual families is retained here. Jesus is torn between his father, represented by the officious law firm Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat ("To him, the law is everything. Still, to this day, attorneys are his favourites.") and his fellow humans ("you're addicted to human beings" the Devil tells him at one point, something Jesus later concedes). The film ends with him relaxing in the company of the rest of the main characters in the film, his companion from the beginning of the film Magdalena; a dishevelled Satan; Dave and Edie, an unlikely couple from the bar; and Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat's former receptionist.

    That said, The Book of Life marked a departure from much of Hartley's earlier work. It was his first film shot on digital video and he uses it to draw attention to several formal elements of film. Most notable element of this is his use of slow motion blur and light distortion. Hartley reclaims "what might seem digital video's decidedly cinematic, even "ugly" limitations -- the jittery, blurry, not-quite-stable quality of the image's texture, the tendency to exaggerate or otherwise render somewhat "off" the properties of color and light -- as its own new, exciting palette, with its own potential for visual beauty." (McQuain). Hartley has spoken on various occasions as these distortion effects as being the "visual equivalent" of distortion effects for electric guitar, "there's much more freedom in music about using distortion. All that blurriness comes out of that aesthetic." (Eaves)

    This combines with various other visual techniques such as the repeated use of unusual camera angles - not simply by placing the camera above or below eye level, but also tilting the angle - and alternating between black and white. Many of these techniques are shared with Hartley's later The Girl From Monday (2005), very much a companion piece to this one with it's other-worldly lead character arriving, somewhat unannounced, on Earth. Indeed the result of the visual distortion, unusual camera angles and so on is to give the film a disorientating, somewhat surreal, other-worldly feel. Dubbed "a controversial retelling of the Apocalypse" the film's playful visual and comic elements enable more profound questions to be asked than would be possible with a retelling that were either more literal, or more closely resembling the world as we generally experience it.

    Stylistically the film is a pastiche of different styles and genres including science fiction, travelogue, the western, film noir and of course the Jesus film. The plot is essentially driven by the line quoted at the start of this discussion. Having returned to Earth to judge humanity, Jesus finds he has reservations. God's legal representatives try to pressure Jesus into getting on with the apocalypse. The Devil wants the book so that he can prevent it ("Revelation 12:12, Not my favourite passage."), whilst continuing to try and claim a few last souls. Encountering an atheist in a bar called Dave he offers him a Faustian pact his girlfriend Edie's soul in exchange for winning lottery tickets. Meanwhile Jesus delays his decision as long as he can. Seen twenty years later it's easy to forget that when The Book of Life was produced, real trepidation about the Y2K-induced computer collapse at the new millennium did exist" (Berrettini 58).

    The film's Jesus has a heavy emphasis on compassion. He was seemingly changed forever by becoming human, and his feelings only intensified on his return to Earth. It is noticeable, for example that the last line of his closing monologue shifts from 'they' to 'we' as if for the first time he is accepting his place as a human. His smart suit and white shirt contrast with the Devil's red shirt, scruffy overcoat, bruised face and sticking plaster. Jesus is portrayed as intellectual, rational and thoughtful in contrast to the grubby pragmatism of the Devil.

    Ultimately, the decisive moment comes when Jesus punches the devil in the stomach (in similar fashion to the way Donovan's character in Trust (1990) punches his father in the stomach at a similarly pivotal moment) [SPOILERS] and he decides to call off the end of the world. He tricks the Devil into releasing Edie's soul and finally the characters reassemble to see in the new millennium. The following morning, his mission abandoned, Jesus leaves the city at the end of the film on the Staten Island Ferry, with no indication as to where he is going. The film's focus on and location in a specific place, leaves this open. is he moving on to another place as when the hero moves on at the end of many westerns, or is this symbolizing his leaving Earth, where New York has functioned as a specific representative of Earth as a whole?[END OF SPOILERS] Either way he ends the film with a stunning monologue, reproduced below, about the potential possibilities awaiting the human race.

    Seen today what is striking about the film is how that final monologue - which talks about what the future, and of course for its original audience - what the new millennium would hold, is accompanied by a shot from the ferry of the Twin Towers. To them it was so emblematic of what humanity can achieve, of its promise. To us it summarises so jarringly, the awful possibilities of the destruction that humans can wreck, and what the awaited new millennium has thus far come to be defined by. The dashing of the very hopes the movie dares to imagine. "The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection". Even despite all that has happened in those twenty years these possibilities remain. We can only hope we can find the compassion we need.
    And the New Year arrived. The new millennium. Just another day in a lifetime of similar days, but each one of them crowded with possibilities. The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection. To be there amongst them again was good. The innocent and the guilty all equally helpless, all perfectly lost, and, as frightening as it was to admit, all deserving of forgiveness. What would become of them, I wondered. In another 100 years, would they all be born in test-tubes? Or perhaps evolve through computers to become groups of disembodied, digital intelligence machines? Would they remember who I was? Would they remember what I said? Would it matter? Maybe someone else will come along and say pretty much the same thing. Would anyone notice? In a hundred years, would they be living on other planets? Would the Earth still exist? Would they engineer themselves genetically so that disease was a thing of the past? Would they all just become one big multi-ethnic race? Would they discover the secret of the universe? God? Would they become gods themselves? What will they eat? What sort of houses will they live in? Cities - think about it. What will the weather be like? Will they still have to go to work everyday? What will they wear in the future? How smart will they get? And will being smarter make them happier? Will they all speak the same language in the future? Will they make love? Maybe there will be more than two sexes. Will they still believe life is sacred? Will it matter? Do we matter?
    ================

    Berrettini, Mark I. (2011) Hal Hartley - (Contemporary Film Directors). Champaign: University of Illinois Press. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/289391982/Mark-l-Berrettini-Hal-Hartley-Contemporary-Film-Directors

    Eaves, Hannah (2005) "Free to Investigate: Hal Hartley" at GreenCine, April 24. Formerly at http://www. greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206 Now only available via the Internet Archive - https://web.archive.org/web/20150613061209/http://www.greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206

    Manley, Sebastian (2013) The Cinema of Hal Hartley, Bloomsbury

    McQuain, Christopher (2013) "The Book of Life / The Girl from Monday" on DVD Talk 14th May. Available online - https://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/60528/book-of-life-girl-from-monday/

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    Saturday, December 23, 2017

    25 Things Revisited


    Back in August I declared my intentions for 25 Things to Look out for on the Blog. I've been cracking on with those, although a few other items have snuck onto the agenda and so, as Christmas is a time for end-of-term reports, I thought it was about time I reflected on the progress that's been made.

    18 films
    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) [done]
    Salome (1922)
    Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
    Samson and Delilah (1922)
    Lot in Sodom (1933) [done]
    The Great Commandment (1939) [done]
    Salome (1953)
    Barabbas (1961) [done]
    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament) (1962)
    I Grandi Condottieri (Samson and Gideon) (1965)
    Jesus, Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Moses und Aron (1973)
    Jacob and Joseph (1974)
    Wholly Moses (1981)
    St. John in Exile (1986)
    Book of Life (1998)
    Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001) [done]
    Noah (2014) [done]
    Chasing the Star (2017) [done]
    The Star (2017) [done]
    Mary Magdalene (2018)

    3 series
    The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79)
    A.D. The Bible Continues(2015) [progressing]
    Pioneers of African-American Cinema

    3 books
    "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema" - David Shepherd et al. [done]
    "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" - Richard A. Lindsay
    "Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed" - Carol A. Hebron

    ...and lastly...
    ...there's a piece on the Lion's Den in film. [done]

    I make that 9&1/2; out of 25. Not brilliant, but a good start. It's worth pointing out in defence of my slowish progress that Mary Magdalene has now been moved to 2018 and the research for a couple of these is well underway. Over those 4 months I've also managed to review the following (which probably should have been on the original list):

    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (1905)
    La Sacra Bibbia (1920)
    Greaser's Palace (1972)
    The Nativity (1978)
    Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (1986)
    Moses und Aron (2010)
    Left Behind (2014)
    mother! (2017)

    My next target is to cover Hal Hartley's Book of Life (1998). I figure as it's a New Year's Eve film (for the ultimate New Year, I suppose) then I should try and get it done by then. Hopefully for these next few months - particularly now I've covered most of the films I should probably have included in the first place - I'll stick a bit better to the plan. That said, there's already the need to cover Paul, Apostle of the Christ when it's released in the spring.

    Saturday, December 16, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 5


    This is part 5 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    Having enjoyed episode 4 of A.D. The Bible Continues more than I expected I was kinda keen to watch this episode. Perhaps that led to heightened expectations, but if so, they were not fulfilled. The disappointment set in straight away with the fallout from the last episode's Ananias and Sapphira incident. Where the last episode featured a level of ambiguity, shock and even a degree of horror in proceedings, all that gets quickly mopped up. Peter is entirely cleared of culpability and the blame is laid firmly at God's door. The question of how a God of love could commit such an act is raised, ever so briefly, but it's quickly flitted over and swiftly brushed under the (historically appropriate) rug. Even the thought that this issue might be a serious concern for some of these believers seems to be overlooked. Ultimately it not only fails to portray the fear that the believers felt, but, at the other end of the scale, fails to present a response that seems consistent with either how they would have felt about it, nor mirrors what it's modern day audience might feel.

    One strange detail that becomes more apparent in this episode is that the early Christians seem to be living in a large camp. There doesn't seem to be any real precedence for this. These chapters of Acts (4-7) are set generally in, and perhaps around Jerusalem. There's even a reference to them being together in Solomon’s Portico, which was close to the temple. That said the idea of such a gradually increasing camp evokes the various Occupy camps that sprung up in 2011, which fits with a community where "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions" (Acts 4:32).

    The Stephen character, who we only met for the first time in the previous episode, soon becomes this one's focus. It's pretty clear from all of these early appearances that he's a hothead who has something of a martyr complex. In the last episode he pretty needlessly stood up to Roman soldiers, and here he's disappointed to be asked to "look after the camp"  - presumably referring to how he's first introduced in the Bible as someone picked to "wait on tables" (Acts 6:2-5). Stephen makes a point of the excellence of his training, and that he can speak four languages, arrogantly arguing he's "meant to preach". The foreshadowing here is too over-done.

    The second major weakness comes with the climax of the attempted assassination of Pilate story-line. As far as I know there's no evidence of this incident, so whilst it certainly not unlikely, the subplot's continuation over three episodes feels ever so dragged out. at the end of it all it's difficult to really figure how it has moved things on. It does end with a curious moment of interfaith harmony as Peter and Caiaphas end up doing an acapella duet of Psalm 69. The singing is a little out of tune, which is a nice touch, and the two men, for moment, see eye to eye. But then Peter turns it into an opportunity to preach the name of Jesus and Caiaphas has him arrested, allowing Stephen to escape back to tell the others.

    When the others turn up to help Peter, they too are arrested and we get the first of the miraculous escapes from prison (Acts 5:19-20). This done particularly crassly. The angel - who as with previous angels in this series is needlessly clad in armour - neatly stays still under a white spotlight whilst the rest of the prison stays fairly dark. The padlocks zing themselves off, and there's far too much glowing and smoking, but I suppose I should be pleased that at least he doesn't feel the need to chop through all the guards to lead his wards to freedom.

    Peter senses that they are to return to the temple and so the group end up preaching there again, this time (again in keeping with Acts 5) they end up before the council and Caiaphas is about to have them executed when Gamaliel steps in and offers his wisdom that if their movement is not from God  it will whither out but if it is from God they will not be able to stop it. I guess Christians and atheists will have quite different takes on this passage, but after 18 months of Brexit and Trump, Gamaliel's wisdom does not hold quite the same appeal it used to have.

    The result of Gamliel's pragmatic 'tolerance' is a fairly brutal flogging, with an odd configuration of whipping posts that is a little too obviously arranged for the cameras. The flogging seems both inspired by that of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), but is also a little more restrained. It's one of the rare places that the violence in this series and its forerunner The Bible (2013) makes me actually think more deeply about something, rather than just feeling like it's ramped up to provide entertainment.

    Whilst the flogging leads Peter to a moment of introspection, Stephen is incensed and marches off to confront the Jewish council. He argues vehemently with Caiaphas, but it is an angry mob that drags him off while he's still yelling out lines from Acts 7. It's all a bit different to how it happens in the text with Stephen "full of grace" and the "appearance of an angel" nevertheless his passion here is an interesting take from the more placid character of my imagination. Either way, it's the same grim ending, which seems all the more brutal by the fact that he is tied to a post and so unable to bury his head. Again the violence here is justified and again it makes me feel a little differently about its source material. For me, it raises an interesting question: Why, given the end result is the same, is it more uncomfortable to see someone stoned to death if they can't bury their head.

    And so, with this episode having picked up the pace a little, we arrive at the start of Acts 8. Having recapped the end of the gospels and taken its time to get here, we finally get a glimpse of Saul who's role is pronounced, but rather awkward. I guess it's not difficult to predict what will be happening in the next episode.

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    Wednesday, December 13, 2017

    The Nativity (1978)


    The demise of the biblical epic in the 1960s saw adaptation of the Bible moving instead onto television. With budgets greatly reduced the spectacular aspects of the epic were less affordable resulting in the Californian desert typically standing in for the Holy Land, impressive sets being kept to a minimum and the cast of thousands being downsized. Yet through this the polished nature of the epic nature remained. The grimy 'realism' that typifies modern epics had not yet been conceived and so viewed today, these TV epics, with their overly shampooed hair, soft focus and preponderance of fair skin, appear hopelessly anachronistic.

    The Nativity (1978) starring a twenty year old Madeleine Stowe as Mary and featuring John Shea's debut performance as Joseph, is just such a film. Aside from Jesus' parents the rest of the cast is packed with famous British actors: Leo McKern as Herod the Great, driven mad by the his former wife Mariamme's betrayal; Kate O'Mara as Salome, just not the one usually associated with the Herods; and John Rhys Davies as the Nestor, one of a trio of Herod's advisers who end up on a strange sort of hunt for a coming messiah.

    The film starts in the court of Herod the Great (Leo McKern) as he bemoans and the lack of love his people feel for him. One of its strengths is the way it emphasises the Jewishness of this story and its main protagonists, and the antagonism between the ordinary people and the ruling elite. There are various references to crucified wannabe messiahs or defeated zealots and Herod worries about the threat posed by his numerous opponents.

    Most strikingly there is a good deal of effort to portray Mary and Joseph as a typical, first-century, Jewish couple. The first scene featuring Mary and Joseph has her carrying a menorah candlestick and Joseph climbs onto a flat roof. Mary's uncle wears Jewish skull cap and shawl and discusses the law and when the two become betrothed it's clear that even if the customs displayed are not necessarily accurate, the filmmakers are certainly trying. Elsewhere they emphasise that Mary's parents have expectations for her marriage that are different from their audience. Mary's mother had been hoping she might marry "a prince". Furthermore, Joseph is considered too old for Mary - even though age gap is not particularly huge. (At the time of release Shea was 29 compared to Stowe's 20).

    Not dissimilarly, whilst Joseph and Mary are apparently in love before their betrothal, this is meant to be a secret and she frets about the two of them being seen talking and him giving her gifts. Yet at the same time the holy couple also defy the conventions of their day, and perhaps also our own. Joseph, for example, is expecting a messiah whose deliverance from Rome will not be in the style of the zealots. Even more striking in this respect is when Mary tends to the needs of a man being crucified, climbing a ladder to stroke his face. It's an act of both compassion and defiance, suggesting both Mary's love and her strength.

    All of this happens in the first half of the film, allowing it to fully develop the characters of Mary and Joseph before wading in to the biblical material. The annunciation doesn't occur until 40 minutes in to the film, not far off halfway. When it does come there is no angel, no disembodied voice, indeed there is not even a bright shining light. Mary is on her own by a remote-ish river and we see her face several times in extreme close-up. We also see a few shots taken from a low angle with Mary's face obstructing the sun and hear a suitably "oooh-ing" choir. Having heard, and responded to, God's vision, Mary lies down and goes to sleep. It's Joseph who wakes her and she recounts what happened as if recounting a dream. Indeed, that is what Joseph takes it to be. The low-angled shot is repeated later in the film when Joseph gets his own moment of revelation.

    The ambiguity surrounding the annunciation scene is absent however from the scenes where Mary visits Elizabeth and Zachariah. Mary is already aware of the unusual nature of Elizabeth's pregnancy. She even refers to it when trying to convince Joseph her experience was more than a dream. But the usual moments of Elizabeth;s unborn child jumping in the womb is still present, as are brief snippets of their conversation from Luke's Gospel. Additionally, as per the traditional story Zechariah's is  unable to speak, something Elizabeth jokes about in a line reminiscent of this year's The Star ("Sometimes I think it's improvement").

    All of these typical scenes are accompanied by the rather odd sub-plot involving three of Herod's advisors, Diomedes, Nestor and Flavius. Having taken it upon themselves to investigate the rumours of a coming messiah they tour round Judea meeting Joseph in one location, the wise men in another, and conveniently passing through the shepherds' field just as the angel is appearing. Spurious sub-plots are not uncommon in biblical films, but the way this one gradually increases it's focus onto Rhys-Davies and his colleagues seems particularly strange.

    Two moments stand out in this respect. The first is a weird conversation with the magi about the potential risk from Herod. Worst of all however is the climax of the film which sees neither shepherds or wise men making it on time, but does show Diomedes, Nestor and Flavius arriving in time not only be the first to witness the new king, but also to tip-off his father Joseph than the bright star that led them to the stable might be noticeable enough to also draw Herod's attention to it. Ordinarily this might not seem so very strange - the parallelism between these Roman wise men and the ones from the East might even work under other circumstances - but this is how the film ends.

    So whilst I and many others think of this version of the Nativity as the Madeleine Stowe one, in the end she is nudged to the edge of the stage by her co-stars. It would be almost ten years before her breakthrough in Stakeout and fifteen before her acclaimed performances in Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). For his part, Shea eventually went on to star in another film about someone from another world coming to earth as a baby as  Lex Luthor in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997).

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    Saturday, December 02, 2017

    Mary Magdalene gets a trailer and a website


    We've known that a film about Mary Magdalene was in the works since FilmChat/Deadline broke the story in January 2016, but until now there's been very little to go on. For a while now we've known that Rooney Mara had the title part and that Joaquin Phoenix was playing Jesus, but aside from the various photos of them smoking on set, the filmmakers have been keeping things relatively tight.

    Now, however, there's an official website for the film and a trailer, which you can see below (click for HD/fullscreen)

    The website is fairly barebones for now, but the trailer shows us quite a lot. For a start Phoenix's portrayal of Jesus looks like it will be one of the most interesting we have seen. Aside from his acting pedigree, there's also the rather weathered look of his preacher from Nazareth. Historically, actors playing Jesus were often made as photogenic as possible - even getting Jeffrey Hunter to shave his armpits in King of Kings (1961). More recently there's been a tendency towards more grittier productions, especially since The Passion of the Christ (2004), but Jesus, bloodied face aside, has still tended to have good teeth and skin. In comparison, Phoenix's Jesus looks well worn. At 41, Phoenix is quite a bit older than Jesus probably was, but the harshness of the lifestyle, probably evens this out a bit. Hence we get a Jesus who looks like he has experienced the ups and downs of real life.

    We also see a lot of images of Jesus smiling, but not always winningly, as well as a good range of other emotions, including fear and anger. Various films have focused strongly on one of these before, or incorporated several of them in a more toned down form, but this seems a very emotional Jesus, but also one who is, not necessarily intended to appeal to audiences enough to carry the film. The real star here - at least if we take the film's title seriously, is Mary Magdalene.

    I know far less about Rooney Mara than I do about Phoenix, but her figure here seems far more photogenic and appealing than Phoenix. I'm not quite sure photogenic is the right word here as it suggests a degree of personal taste. Put it this way, swap their costumes for 21st century office attire and it's clear who would fit in more naturally.

    That said even Mary's clothing here gives a suggestion that her character is wealthier than most of the other characters, and certainly compared to Jesus. If I'm right on this then it touches on a key fact about Mary that tends to be overlooked. The main piece of background information we have about her, from Luke 8:1-3, is that she was one of the group of women who funded Jesus and his followers. In fact, her name comes first amongst those benefactors, and it would not be inconceivable that this meant she was the highest of his donors. In this light the smearing of her as a prostitute, seems like an almost deliberate attempt to bury an uncomfortable fact.

    The other piece of information this passage gives us is that "seven demons had gone out" from her. Given its run-time, the trailer goes into this relatively deeply. The first part of the trailer includes a voice over where one male character says "You have brought shame on our family", followed by another man saying "there's something unnatural inside you". We then see several shots of Jesus and Mary with Jesus saying "Your family says you battle with the demons", Mary saying "If there's a demon in me it's always been there" then another shot of a smiling Jesus reassuring her that "There are no demons here".

    But what follows is also more interesting. There are apparent conflicts with a seemingly resentful Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), reminiscent of Abel Ferrara's Mary (2005) and the non-canonical Gospel of Mary. There is also a scene where Jesus seems to be encouraging Mary to carry out baptisms. Most interestingly of all, Mary asks Jesus "Is that how it feels to be one with God" and Jesus replies that no-one has ever asked about how it feels. None of this is really that unexpected given this is supposed to be a film about Mary, though it looks like it will be a more interesting and self-respectful portrayal than the one we find in Magdalena Released From Shame (2006). Be prepared for a string of stories about a feminist Mary Magdalene between now and the film's release.

    Speaking of which it looks like the film will be release over here in the UK on the 16th March, Australia on 22nd March and the US on March 30 (Good Friday). There are a few more details on the official website, but it's fairly sparse at the moment.
    HT Peter Chattaway.

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    Thursday, November 30, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 4


    This is part 4 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    After my last piece on this series, I decided I couldn't continue just to mention the same three or four characteristics of this series over and over again every time I wrote about it. So I decided to try and bring something new this time. I was fortunate, therefore, that this episode was both the most interesting and the best of the series so far, and I'd suggest also better than any of the episodes from the original The Bible series (2013).

    For one thing it felt like it was this episode where the series' multi-ethnic casting really matured. It's been a key feature of course, both of A.D. The Bible Continues/Kingdom and Empire and The Bible before it, , notably the casting of black actors to play Samson and John son of Zebedee, but whilst that has been in some senses laudable, it's also felt a little forced, like a man trying to impress a woman by telling her how into feminism he is.

    This time, however, it felt more natural and it started to reap the benefits. In particular it seemed like the first time that John was allowed to really emerge from being one of the twelve to being a more distinct character. He's still very much playing second fiddle to Peter, but he had a bigger role than in previous episodes.

    More broadly the multi-ethnic casting gave a far more realistic feel to a busy, trade route city such as Jerusalem in an empire that extended into Africa, Asia and across most of Europe. There's a tendency as well to assume that the Jews were largely an ethnically pure race, but I'm not sure that this is much more than an assumption based on a purist extrapolation of Jewish law.

    The most interesting scene in the film was that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), a story that has long held a kind of morbid fascination for me. The Bible remains curiously silent on the question of who, if anyone, killed the pair and the film does a good job of capturing this. It won't satisfy those who think that Peter murdered the pair (or ordered others to do it), but those who think his anger contributed to an underlying health issue will like the ambiguity.

    What I particularly appreciated about the sequence, however, was the way it adopted aspects of the horror genre. In particular the music, special effects, reaction shots on onlookers' faces and the low camera angle of various shots gave this a real horror effect. The story feels like one of the last vestiges of the Old Testament stubbornly refusing to leave and the film makes the shocking nature of this contrast stand out. Easily the best sequence in series so far.

    Elsewhere, the relationship between Pilate and Caiaphas, which annoyed me to begin with is developing in interesting ways. Where at first Caiaphas seemed to have the upper hand and be nudging Pilate into executing Jesus, now Pilate is acting in a manner far more in keeping with the thug that emerges from the various documents that describe him and Caiaphas is becoming more the sympathetic victim.

    Here he's challenged by Joseph of Arimathea that if the relationship he has cultivated with Pilate means anything then it has to mean something now (that he is randomly executing young man until the man who tried to murder him is taken into custody). The result is an utter humiliation for Caiaphas meaning that this production perhaps portrays the dominance of the Roman leaders better than any other that comes immediately to mind.

    Lastly, we also get to meet Barnabas in this episode. What's interesting about this is that he is portrayed as a rich man, but one who feels that the disciples judge him because of his wealth. Barnabas' line here "I'm disappointed you assume my wealth sets us apart" sounds like it is working a little too hard to accommodate the subsequent wealth of western churches with the communal sharing of wealth to help the poor that is depicted in the early chapters of Acts, but it's interesting to see how the story develops on this point. I'm actually quite looking forward to the next episode.

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    Sunday, November 26, 2017

    The Star (2017)


    One of the things that neither Bible film fans, nor the people who write about them like to admit, is that, more often than not, they are a form of entertainment. We should all know this of course; anyone who has seen 80 year-old stutterer Moses portrayed by a young Charlton Heston fresh from the gym is kidding themselves if they think otherwise. We excuse all kinds of unlikely dialogue on the grounds of artistic license and accept many of the lines publicists feed us about films raising difficult questions or exploring issues. It's not that Bible films cannot both do those things and be entertaining, but that often those of us who take them seriously forget that, for many, they are just about entertainment.

    Sony Animated Pictures' Christmas release, The Star, seems content simply to aim for entertainment. No-one would watch it's take on the Nativity story and think that this was how things really happened. The dramatic license makes no serious attempt to convince you that it has any kind of link to how historical reality. Instead it just aims for a fun, whilst not disrespectful, retelling of the story of Jesus' birth through the eyes of it's real main character, a donkey called Bo. Bo and his best friend Dave (a dove) end up getting adopted by Mary and Joseph in the weeks leading up to their trip to Bethlehem and unbeknownst to the holy couple bring with them a series of hazards which they somehow manage to, just about, keep at bay.

    As family entertainment it's not bad. The pacing is sprightly enough to stop boredom setting in, the characters are generally appealing without feeling overly cutesy (Ruth the sheep and Felix the camel aside) and there are a few funny lines here and there. Whilst none of it is as amusing as the opening sequence in Despicable Me 3, it's at least on a par with the rest of Despicable Me 3.

    The best thing about it, however, is its affectionate take down of both the typical biblical epic and the various ways in which the Christmas story has been told in the past. The opening title sets the tone, but it continues through the banter between Elizabeth and Zechariah ("I think I liked you better when you couldn't talk") and one of the camels' judgement on Herod's golden shoes ("That, Felix, is money and no taste"). Perhaps the best take down of all comes when Bo realizes the stable he has discovered is where Jesus is meant to be born. What really gives it away is that the poor animals that live there have suffered 9 months of bad sleep due to the star shining through a gap in their roof right on to the manger. It's a great spoof of the clichéd climatic shot in The Nativity Story (2006) and the works that inspired it and one of a number of places where the film playfully takes on the ways in which we have interpreted the original story, without trying to undermine its importance.

    The other thing that is interesting about the film is the way it handles Joseph's reaction to the news of Mary's pregnancy. Having watched almost every available Nativity film this year, most of them take an remarkably adult angle on this story, which feels very much part of the post-1960s shift in attitudes to sex. Typically Joseph is angry or hurt, but never seriously considers stoning her to death. His attitudes are very modern in ways that our ancestors, and perhaps our descendants would not recognize. If you've ever watched one of these films with kids, it's hard to explain to them the nuances of what is going on.

    As The Star is very much aimed at children (and younger, primary age children at that) it bravely decides to omit these very grown-up anxieties, save parents an awkward conversation, and focus instead on Joseph's concerns about how he can possibly father such a child. It's not a unique line of thinking - there's a similar line in The Nativity Story, for example, (a film which has clearly been a significant influence on The Star) - but I appreciate the focus this gives on issues that kids can relate to more readily ("Can I handle what is expected of me?"). It took me a while to get used to it, but it does allow us to see past what has become the dominant aspect of how Joseph tends to be viewed.

    Where the film falls down, for me, is where it tries to move beyond being an entertaining celebration of the story of Mary and Joseph, and force out a cheesy lump of exposition. Suddenly it feels like you have been ambushed by a large dose of unwelcome propaganda, like someone 'splaining the film's life lessons when you've already fully grasped it. Seasonal goodwill had previously enabled me to overlook the awful, mega-churchy sounding soundtrack. Now I'm not sure I feel as generous.

    Perhaps, though, I can forgive the film for that because of it's subtler moments. The nods to Lassie that are not wrung out for all they are worth, the Matera-like design of Bethlehem, and, most of all, the decent, honest, but realistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph who, in the midst of all the crazy animal antics, somehow retain a sense of poise and dignity. Thankfully The Star never lets you forget that behind all the entertainment, there is an important story that we need to celebrate and continue to share.

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    Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    The Great Commandment (1939)


    Which was the first "talking Jesus"? It's a question which is more complex than it might initially appear. Depending on how one defines what constitutes a Jesus film, where it plays, and the language in which Jesus is speaking there is a variety of different answers from 1935's Golgotha to 1961's King of Kings. And then there's the various silent Jesus films which were re-released with sound after the advent of the new technology. Do they count?

    Twelve years after the last, major silent Jesus film, DeMille's The King of Kings came the release of  The Great Commandment (1939). It's one of the many that can, perhaps, stake a reasonable claim to being the first Jesus talkie. It was also the first film made by Cathedral films; produced by John T. Coyle, assisted by Rev. James K. Friedrich and directed by Irving Pichel. The team would work together for almost twenty years creating a series of biblical and religious films which were shown in churches, cinemas and on television.

    That said, technically speaking, the film is not quite a proper Jesus film, but lies partway between a full Jesus movie and the kind of Roman-Jewish-Christian epic where Jesus' role is reduced to that of a significant cameo. Here Jesus does not feature until the halfway point and whilst we hear his voice, his face is shown only once as a fleeting reflection. Thereafter, we hear him speak, and even see things from his point of view, but his face remains off screen.

    The story revolves around a love triangle between two zealot brother who both have an interest in Tamar (Marjorie Cooley) a girl from their village. The elder brother Joel (John Beal) is in love with her, but she is betrothed to his younger brother Zadok (Warren McCollum). The dispute leads Joel to fall out with his pacifist scholarly father so he goes off in search of the charismatic leader from Nazareth about whom he has heard so much.

    Such a plot, where a zealot mistakes Jesus for a political leader before ultimately becoming one of his followers, was one that Coyle, Friedrich and Pichel returned to a number of times, most notably in the television movie I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the cinematic release Day of Triumph (1954).

    This early incarnation perhaps lacks the finesse and pacing of the latter version. There's not a great deal of chemistry between Joel and Tamar, and John Beal's boyish good looks make it hard to take his seriously as a hardened zealot rebel. That said, things pick up in the second half when Beal encounters Jesus. By giving only vague indications as to the story's date (30 AD) and location ("In between Jericho and Jerusalem") the film makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly whereabouts in Jesus' life Joel is encountering him. This adds a sense of tension and mystery to proceedings, even though the audience ultimately senses how things will end.

    This lack of a frame of reference is enhanced by the way the film selects material from the gospels. Aside from a couple of miracles, it largely utilises the sayings material, and even then the order of the material is jumbled up. The Beatitudes (Matt 5) come after the, much later, phrase "Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26). Material from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is mixed with parables from far later in Luke. The Jesus we encounter seems far closer than the one from the Q material unique to Matthew and Luke's gospel than any one of the canonical gospels.

    Joel is gradually drawn closer to Jesus, best expressed in a tracking shot of him whilst Jesus recites the Beatitudes. Shooting Joel from below he gradually moves from the outside of the crowd listening to Jesus to close to where Jesus is speaking. The lateral movement enables him to maintain a purposeful pace whilst his eyes remain purposefully fixed on his new master. There are a number of longer moving shots like this throughout the film often portraying a sense of togetherness of those captured together.

    One particularly striking example is a two minute long shot taken from Jesus' point of view. At first it is not even clear that this is perspective from which the shot is taken, but then the camera focuses on Joel's father before panning right to Joel and Andrew and then back to his father. The way the camera, and Jesus' gaze, links the two men and suggests a reconciliation which is never quite fully realised within the film itself.

    Perhaps the most significant of these extended shots occurs when Joel returns home for Zadok and Tamar's wedding, joining the guests in harmony before an abrupt cut to a close-up on Tamar's, slightly regretful, face. The scene is also significant for the emphasis it places on the Jewishness of its characters. The dress, music and dancing style of the characters may seem a little stereotypical, but it's an undeniably positive attempt to capture the Jewish nature of the story, and Jesus himself, just as the Second World War was beginning. Given the film's final scenes, perhaps it can be ready as a naive argument for appeasement, before the horrors of the Nazi regime had become apparent. Nevertheless, any such argument is based on and rooted in the Jewishness of Jesus and his early followers.

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    Sunday, November 19, 2017

    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach
    The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967)


    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is the film that put the "and" in Straub and Huillet. Whilst it was the third of Straub's films to be completed, they started working on it well before they created Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965) and thus it was the first film that they worked on together. It was also their first feature length film. Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled (both of which are included on Grasshopper's Moses und Aron disc release later this month) were 18 minutes and 55 minutes respectively.

    It's fitting because Chronik tells the tale of Johann Sebastian Bach from the perspective of his wife Anna Magdalena and whilst the film never suggests Anna was a collaborator, there are scenes both of them working in close proximity and of her playing on her own. The vast majority of Straub and Huillet's work tended to be adaptations of a single work (in addition to Moses und Aron they also adapted Schöenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen (1997), as well as the Corneille play Othon (1969) and works by Brecht [History Lessons, 1972], Kafka [Class Relations, 1984] and the Italian poet Cesare Pavese [From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979; These Encounters of Theirs, 2006]). Here, however, Chronik uses a variety of smaller sources, as whilst the film bears Anna Magdalena's name and is narrated by an actress playing her (Christiane Lang), none of her writings remain save a brief note at the bottom of a receipt. The note in question is shown part way through the film, as are a number of Bach's documents and other papers relating to him. The shots showing these are relatively short in comparison to the scenes of Bach and the musicians he is working with performing his work.

    These scenes are notable for a number of reasons. In nearly all cases the scene consists of a lengthy single shot, and in generally the camera remains relatively static for the whole shot. One notable exception is the opening shot which starts with a close up on Bach (played by specialist musician Gustav Leonhardt) as he plays the opening solo part of "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5", before quickly zooming out to reveal his accompanying musicians at the moment at which they join in.

    Another thing that is unusual about Straub's shots, both here and in many of his films, is the camera angles he adopts, most notably his diagonal shots. As Richard Roud explains "throughout the film he plays with binary symmetry, left-right polarity, and the changing direction of his diagonals both in the camera set-up and in the camera movements. In fact, one could comfortably claim that there is never an eye-level, straight-on shot in the film: the camera is always a little above or below the actors, either to the left or right." (Roud, 78)

    But perhaps what is most striking about these shots is the way they ignore photographing any kind of audience for the performance. The focus is solely on the musicians (save for one piece which focuses instead on the organ pipes). Occasionally Anna's comments suggest an audience was at least present, but frequently even that knowledge is denied to the viewer. This has a great impact on how the film's audience react to the various pieces. Shorn of a stand-in audience to show us how to react, our reactions are our own. The focus is on the musicians and their own subtle movements.

    The other things that these cameras catch is the carefully chosen locations. As Barton Byg explains Straub and Huillet's "choice of location is never arbitrary and is indeed preceded on the screenplays in some instances. The films then implore the physical traces of history that human activity leaves behind and confront these spaces with texts or musical pieces" (Byg, 55).Here we are treated to a series of 18th century church interiors as well as various shots inside the family home (though I do not believe this rooms shown here are the Bach's actual home).

    That said, it would be a mistake to think that the film is an exact facsimile of how things really happened. Aside from the wigs, Leonhardt does not resemble Bach physically at all. On top of this, whilst Straub/Huillet's later films were more faithful to one particular source, here Anna's narration is drawn from, and inspired from various documents. Furthermore, the flat, unemotional delivery with which the actors deliver their lines (even when discuss the deaths of their children) is unlikely to have been how the real Anna would have referred to her lost children.

    All of which very much puts the emphasis if the film on the music, the "most important element" according to Roud "but not its only subject" (1972: 65). It is also "a love story...a documentary on the actors and musicians of the film...[and] a film with social and political aspects" (Roud, 1982: 65). These and other aspects are all brought together under the film's title character. It might seem surprising to those who have not seen the film that it is named after Bach's wife and not the man himself. Yet as rigorous and "stripped down" as Straub and Huillet's film is, it still remains a subjective account. The story is told as a series of flashbacks as remembered by Anna Magdalena. She is the film's focus, even if her husband dominates the screen. Indeed "the central question posed by the film...is how the music of Bach (as a cultural treasure, religious expression, or simply pleasing music) can at all be connected to the physical life of a historical individual." (Byg, 62)

    One scene is particularly notable in this respect. At the end of one of the longest of Anna's monologues, in which she recounts the deaths of three of her children and the family's move to Leipzig, we see Bach playing and conducting a choir and orchestra in the presence of the Prince. But here the other musicians are kept off screen. Even more strikingly, rather than the scene being filmed inside a church, stately house, or historical communal building, the exterior of Leipzig town hall is back-projected behind Leonhardt. The result looks extremely false, as if expressing Anna's disturbed state of mind at the time.

    Despite all of the above Chronik has been described as Straub and Huillet's most accessible film. This is, no doubt, reflected in the fact that most people are at least slightly more aware of Bach's music than they are of, say, Schöenberg's atonal operas or Brecht's novels. Whilst it's austerity and complex ideas mean it's never found a wide audience, it does open up on repeated viewings. And unsurprisingly it has a good deal in common with Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Moses und Aron that was released just a few years later.
    ===============
    Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    Thursday, November 16, 2017

    Paul, Apostle of Christ: From Saul to Paul?


    A month or two ago a teaser trailer for next year's Paul, Apostle of Christ popped up on YouTube, before promptly being taken down. Well now it's back and available for all to see. I've embedded it below. There's also been a press release which is reproduced in full at my friend Peter Chattaway's Patheos blog. It doesn't reveal a great deal we didn't already know except perhaps to confirm what I predicted in my previous post on this film, namely that "the earlier scenes will be shot in flashback from Paul's final days in prison". Anyway here is the trailer.

    The final image of Paul is obviously the most dramatic: the bald-headed, long-bearded Paul starring fiercely into the camera. Paul here is played by James Faulker (right in above image), who I suppose is probably best known these days for his role in Game of Thrones, but who also have Roman-era form in both I, CLaudius (1976), Peter and Paul (1981) and the 2010 version of Ben-Hur. For me though, he's mainly a bit-part actor in all the usual British TV drama series (The Bill, Minder, Bergerac, Lovejoy, A Touch of Frost, Heartbeat, Spooks, Downton Abbey) or a comic talent as best showcased in his role in the Bridget Jones trilogy. So it will be interesting to see him in the lead role in serious production.

    Having said all that about Faulkner, it would be easy to miss the less dramatically imposing figure of Yorgos Karamihos (left in above image) who is credited as Saul of Tarsus. Karamihos appeared in that other recent version of Ben-Hur, from last year. It's interesting that they have chosen two actors to play the one part and I can't help wondering if the change in name (which occurred when Saul decided his mission was to the gentiles, not at the point of his conversion as is commonly thought) will coincide with the change in actor.

    The film is lined up for release (in North America at least) for the 28th March 2018.

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    Saturday, November 11, 2017

    Moses und Aron (2010)


    As this is a film blog, rather than an opera blog, reviewing a filmed version of a live theatre performance of Schöenberg's opera Moses und Aron is a little outside of my normal habitat, although it's not without precedent. Nevertheless with a new version of Straub and Huillet's 1973 film being released on DVD later this month, I thought it would be useful to look at some other adaptations of a complicated piece, starting with the 2010 filmed version, directed by Willie Decker.

    There has been a significant growth in films of 'live' theatre performances in recent years. Going to the cinema to join in on someone else's trip to the theatre was largely unheard of a decade or so ago, yet today it's common, if not a regular occurrence, at many cinemas. By the time these performances are recorded (even if only at the point it is committed to DVD) these have moved, to a certain extent,  from the theoretical category of a broadcast into the realm of documentary. Whilst it's perhaps more of a continuum rather than two distinct poles of "drama" and "documentary" this kind of performance is far less concerned with convincing its audience that the narrative's central characters are the people they are portraying.

    In a way, this takes us back towards some of the concerns that Straub and Huillet are exploring. Both 'films' give their actors costumes and sets, without expecting their audience to be able to entirely suspend their disbelief. Interestingly, in this respect it's Decker's film, which is closer towards the documentary end of the spectrum, that utilises a more typical acting style. Lead actor, Dale Duesing, for example, does a fine job of portraying the agony Moses feels at having experienced God but lacking the necessary skills to convey it to the people he has been called to lead.

    The opera was staged in Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle and Decker's opening shot gives a sense of the venue's industrial past as both an exhibition venue and, later, a compressor hall. In contrast, the staging, is innovative and modern. From first view two steeply diagonal rows of seats face each other with only a narrow "stage" between them, but as things progress the seats move back and forth to create a greater (or lesser) performance between them. The orchestra sits off to the side, oftentimes concealed and, from time to time, the camera shoots across the stage from behind them.

    There are various other innovations as well, though some are hardly original, such as cast members starting the performance in their seats, the use of seats on both sides also meaning that the actors ascend both sides of aisle stairs in certain scenes. In Act I much of the action takes place within a semi-transparent box which fills the stage. It's large enough that at times the entire cast stand inside it, and dominant enough to symbolise the people of Israel's captivity in Egypt. It also forms a convenient surface on which to project the images of Moses's two miracles occurring. In stark contrast to the more minimalist treatment of these incidents in the Straub/Huillet film here they are projected to such a huge size that the psychological impact of these miracles is still the focus. They two dominate the Israelites, yet the transparency of the box's sides gives an ethereality to the images. Were they something real or imagined?

    The film's other props and furniture are similarly modern, ambiguous, functional and symbolic: Moses' staff resembles, in some ways, a giant pencil and is used to draw on occasion; the golden calf is neither gold. nor particularly impressive; instead of two tablets of stone Moses drags a huge sheet with the words written on them instead (pictured above). There are few other props.

    Schöenberg's second act is, perhaps, best known for its orgy scene and the four characters described simply as "four naked virgins". Here, by the end, they are hoisted on people's shoulders and smeared in blood (which looks perhaps, a little too like red corm syrup). The extend scene's function in the script is to emphasise the people's need for something more tangible in which to place their faith, and the sense of what happens when it does, but I'm not convinced how well this scene works here. Does making these images so inedible not also accuse us of the same offence? Perhaps that is the point.

    As is typical of most stage versions of Schöenberg's opera his unfinished third act is omitted. This means the performance ends with Moses as something of a broken man. Despite his best efforts to communicate to his people the essence of God, in fact, arguably because of it, they have ended up in idolatry, death and mob rule. The unscored final act sees Moses seize power once again and is arguably a more subversive ending. Ending the production after two acts makes Moses seem like a victim, whose lofty ideal has failed, but who remains sympathetic. His very idea of understanding God without resorting to imagery undone by the power of the imagery of the production.

    Two other filmed live versions of the opera have also been released on DVD in recent years. Reto Nickler's 2006 version, performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera dwells on the opulence of its location in the Vienna State Opera House in its opening moments. This contrasts strongly with the appearance of Moses, Aron and the rest of the company, who are costumed in the style of European Jews attempt to escape Nazi-era Germany (as Schöenberg himself was at the point at which he was struggling to complete his opera). Francois-Rene Martin's 2014/2015 version also seeks to harness powerful imagery including huge backdrops of mountain ranges, bright white suits for some of the chorus and the presence of a lone naked woman on the DVD cover. I'm not sure Schöenberg's Moses would have approved.

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    Friday, November 03, 2017

    Martin Luther in Film


    Image from the 1913 film Die Wittenberger Nachtigall

    Somehow the commemorations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, specifically the German Lutheran Reformation, had almost passed without me realising it. I got there in the end, but it was only when I saw Kevin McLenithan's piece on Luther films for Think Christian, that I realised that of course this is something that I should have thought of doing. There's another good piece on the subject from Stephen Brown in The Church Times: The hero monk of Hollywood.

    I suppose, then, that this is a bit of a copycat job, particularly as I don't have anything like the grasp on the subject matter as I do with the more biblically based hagiopics. However, I do have an advantage over both McLenithan and Brown - I have seen the most recent entry in the, um, canon, the German miniseries Reformation. So here's a whistle stop tour of the cinema of the German Reformation.

    Doktor Martinus Luther (1911)

    No known copies remain of this, the earliest film about Luther which premiered in Berlin in 1911 and was distributed by Deutsche Bioscop-Gesellschaft (Wipfler, 2011: 37). Its eighteen scenes, running to about 600m (20 minutes) emphasised his marriage and family life (Wipfler, 2011: 81). Interestingly the publicity for the film was at pains to stress that the film was "strictly objective - entirely free of attacks on members of other faiths" which suggests that Luther's critique of Cathiolicism might have been somewhat curtailed.

    Martin Luther: His Life and Time (1923)


    Like most of the silent films about Luther this one was made in German and directed by Karl Wüstenhagen, who also took the role of Luther. Unlike those other films, this one placed a heavy emphasis on the reformer's childhood. A reel or so of the film can be seen at YouTube - which originally ran to much longer - which is split between scenes of Luther's childhood and the matyrdom of Jan Hus a century or so beforehand (1415). It's one of the few times one of the other reformers ends up on screen. As Brown observes "who has ever seen a biopic about Calvin, Zwingli, or Knox?" (Brown). The original ran to 1961m - just over 6 reels or around 2 hours, so whilst the available 16 minutes covering Luther's youth may (or may not) be all that remains, it was just a reasonably proportionate introduction to a fuller treatment of his life.

    Luther: Ein Film der deutschen Reformation (1927)

    Hans Kyser wrote and directed this version which, according to this trailer on YouTube is due for a DVD release later this month after a restoration project by the German Federal Archive. Like Wüstenhagen's film, the opening scenes feature Luther's childhood before progressing to the scene where Luther promises to join the monastery if only he survives the thunderstorm in which he finds himself. But beyond his abduction after the Diet of Worms the story does not cover much of Luther's later life despite its 2 hour running time.

    Martin Luther (1953)

    Perhaps the benchmark for films about Luther is this 1953 film starring Niall MacGinnis (available at The Daily Motion). The opening credits stress its "careful research" and the film attempts to bolster that impression in various ways as the film unfolds. A key element in this is the authoritative, dispassionate narration that occurs throughout the film, providing details such as the precise date that Luther nailed his theses to the door, or context such as the fact that the door was "the customary place to post announcements". MacGinnis does a good job as a bullish, and not necessarily particularly likeable Luther and the early scenes do a good job of showing Luther's doubt and crisis of faith that drove him to find the answers that morphed into the driving force behind his work.

    Martin Luther: Heretic (1983)

    Norman Stone directed this television film (available at YouTube) to commemorate another reformation-related 500th anniversary, that of Luther's birth. It starred the ever watchable Jonathan Pryce as Luther, two years before his breakthrough with Brazil (1985). At 64 minutes, it's the shortest of the sound-era films, and the challenge of covering the critical areas of the story with the available time leads to some interesting decisions. The scene where Luther nails his theses to the Cathedral door lasts only few seconds, although in contrast to many versions of the story, it does actually include Luther's narrating some of these theses over a montage of them being printed and distributed. Two years later Stone would go on to make another TV film about another famed Christian author, C.S. Lewis, in his version of Shadowlands. He also directed Man Dancin' which attempted the same Passion Play/Christ figure combination as Jesus of Montreal, only set in Glasgow.

    Luther (2003)

    In all the books I have about historical films, this is the only film that gets a mention, and even then only once in Alex von Tunzelmann's Reel History: The World According to the Movies (History Grade B-, Entertainment grade D). As she points out this film's Luther (Joseph Fiennes) is grumpy not least because "Pope Julius II [is] blinging around town in shiny gold armour" (Von Tunzelmann, 2015: 96-97). Of all the films about Luther's life this is the one with the most impressive cast. In addition to Fiennes there are also turns by Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and Bruno Ganz. The production values are high and, for me, it has the most compelling version of the "I can do no other" speech. Fiennes, who starred in last year's Risen, would later summarise his role as "a man who stuck to his beliefs in the face of a massive hierarchy.”

    Reformation (2017)

    Produced by German television company ZDF and screened recently on BBC4, Reformation is a more gritty and violent take than any of the others. The threat of torture hangs behind every scene, and is to the fore in many. The focus here is broader than just Luther with part 2 of the miniseries focusing more on Thomas Müntzer, Karlstadt (who the programme calls by another of his names, Bodenstein) the Peasants' War and the Radical Reformation. Indeed if anything Müntzer comes out as more of a hero than Luther himself, recasting him as a modern fore-runner of modern day equality, daring to take things where Luther feared to tread. The film also places a far greater emphasis on the roles of both Luther and Müntzer's wives. For those in the UK, it's available on iPlayer until 15th November.

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    Brown, Stephen (2017) "The hero monk of Hollywood" in Church Times, 30 Jun. Online edition available at:
    https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/30-june/features/features/the-hero-monk-of-hollywood

    McLenithan, Kevin (2017) "Martin Luther at the Movies" at Think Christian. Available online:
    https://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/martin-luther-at-the-movies

    Von Tunzelmann, Alex (2015) Reel History: The World According to the Movies, London: Atlantic Books

    Wipfler, Esther Pia (2011) Martin Luther in Motion Pictures: History of a Metamorphosis, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

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