• 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.

    Monday, February 29, 2016

    Blood of Jesus (1941)

    Spencer Williams Blood of Jesus (1941) is not a Bible film as such, though it contains characters from the Bible, namely satan, and various quotes from the New Testament. It's also a little known and under-appreciated film from a period when the Bible barely featured on the silver screen and the vast majority of portrayals of non-white characters were racist and patronising.

    The film was Williams' second as director and he also wrote and starred in it as a husband who accidentally shoots his wife. It's unclear whether her case is something of an exception, or whether the path she undergoes represents something we all shall face, but either way she ends up at a dusty crossroads torn between the pleadings of a giant-winged angel and the temptations of a horned devil.

    For me the film is strongly reminiscent of The Green Pastures (1936). The budget is clearly not high and viewers may find the concept quaint, hokey or imaginative depending on their perspective, but the key performances are engaging and believable, the compositions are clearly the work of someone who knows how best to frame a scene and whilst there's something comical about the angels wings and the devil's horns this appears to be Williams' intent rather than all he could muster.

    Best of all is the soundtrack, a mix of spirituals, traditional hymns and the odd jazz-era hit thrown in for good measure - evocative and moving without ever becoming twee.

    It's not hard, then to see why the film was the first "race film" to be admitted into the US National film registry, nor why the curators of a forthcoming "Pioneers of African American Cinema" box set consider it to have pride of place amongst the diverse range of films comprising the collection. There's more on that from The Guardian as well as a nice write up by The Bullock Museum in Texas to accompany a recent screening. It will be nice to see a propery restored version so we can assess Williams' work as it was meant to be seen.

    Saturday, February 27, 2016

    More on Jesus of Montreal


    On Monday I was speaking to a class of students at York St. John University about four Jesus films: Il vangelo secondo Matteo, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal and The Passion of the Christ. I've spoken about all of them before, of course, but I felt I wanted to do a bit more research on Jesus of Montreal, particularly from sources other than "books about Bible films" to find of get a wider appreciation of the film, Arcand's style and how the film sits within his wider canon. Not unsurprisingly there were some really interesting insights to be had.

    Firstly, Arcand's other work. Arcand started working in the sixties on history documentaries, one of the earliest and most notable being Ville-Marie (1965, also known as Les Montréalistes). Canadians will probably know that Ville-Marie was an early name for the city, and unsurprisingly the film goes into Montreal's early history. At one point the narration states “It is ironical that in the end this town should be taken over by a materialism it was founded to combat...yet the voices of its origins still echo [through the city]”1. Réal la Rochelle calls it "the pinnacle of Arcand's short films and one of the greatest ever made in Quebec" continuing that it demonstrates "that the heartfelt though mystical desire of Montreal's French founders to establish, against all logic, a city dedicated to the Mother of God, had ended in tragedy for those who conceived it".2 The film's use of religious music is particularly notable and is not unrelated to Arcand's use of Pergolesi's "Sabat Mater" in Jesus of Montreal. This further highlights Arcand's apparent hope in Jesus of Montreal that the "virtues, seemingly lost" of "the city of Mary, the city of Christianization and hospitality...have some hope of being reborn if the citizens can only recapture the charity taught by Christ and exemplified in the protagonist Daniel".3 It's significant then that the passion play in the film takes place at the St. Joseph's Oratory, "the site where Brother Andrew originally dispensed his cures...a place of pilgrimage and healing for North American Catholics".4

    We see other themes emerge through his other work Réjeanne Padovani (1973) became well known within French-speaking Canada for its critique of corruption in Quebec. This was the film where "for the first time, Arcand draws a parallel between the historical fall of a great western empire and that of America, as seen from the gates of Montreal".5 As I have said many times this further underlines the importance of the scene where Jesus wanders down into an underground subway station and begins to recite Jesus' prediction of the fall of Jerusalem from Mark 13.

    Two years later Arcand released Gina (1975) which featured the film within a film motif that's at the heart of Jesus of Montreal. It also "signifies the death of Quebec cinema" and of course Jesus of Montreal contains a heavy critique of the wider Québécois media.6 The film's heroine, who takes some of her income from performing stripteases, is raped so there are minor links to Mirelle's treatment at the advertising audition that so incenses Jesus of Montreal's Daniel.

    As noted above music is critical to Arcand's sensibilities and we see it again here, not only in his choice of several religious pieces, but also in his use of the two singers who "progress" from the church choir, to the advertising audition to busking on the subway platform (the "monumental tomb of the empires of finance" as la Rochelle puts it).7

    Across this body of Arcand's work a number of key motifs and concerns emerge and we see many of these at play within this film as well. Gambarato analysed a number of Arcand's films and noting several key "objects" that recur in a significant manner, in many of his films/8. He focussed on three in particular - Eyeglasses, Mirrors and Medicine. Given that Jesus of Montreal is not one of those included for the closest analysis, it's interesting to see that all of these crop up in this film as well.

    Firstly, whilst the attention paid to glasses is not quite as important here (aside from one character wearing them), the eyes in general seem far more important, most notably the scene where a woman gets an eye-transplant using Daniel's eyes.

    Secondly, no-one would claim that shots of mirrors are unique to Arcand, there is a notable shot of Mirelle starring wistfully at herself in the mirror, and all the classic meanings such as the character in two minds/being reflective/weighing different sides of her personality are present as you might expect. I don't know whether the play on words Mirelle/Mirror is intentional or just an unintended coincidence upon translation into English. What is clear is Mirelle seems to be the only figure whose life is changed by her time with Jesus.

    Then there is Medicine and here the whole medical system is placed under the microscope more than in most films, even those of Arcand (though the theme is critical in The Barbarian Invasions (2003) as well, clearly). Here we see the injured Daniel moving from one hospital to another, lurching from the Catholic St Mary's hospital to an

    In addition to these three main objects, Gambarato also lists a further thirteen such objects. Whilst a closer analysis of Jesus of Montreal would probably provide several other examples, the most obviously present is that of security guards. Here one of the security guards plays a significant part coming into conflict with the actors and ultimately having a role in Daniel's untimely demise.

    However arguably Arcand's greatest concern is Quebec itself. His films are packed with lots of local flavour and internal critique and this film is no exception, taking on "the media... the hospital system...the legal system...the clergy" advertising and the supposedly intellectual elite.9 Montreal is "a if not the 'main character' of the movie" and the film is as much about it as it is about the Jewish peasant leader from Nazareth.10 Indeed, "this Jesus is specifically located in Montreal, immediately creating a tension between Christ's supposed universality as the saviour of humanity and the particularity of a city in Canada...The US critics trear the Lesus srory as always already universal".11Incidentally, many of these themes were also prominent in the 1987 film Le frère André directed by Jean-Claude Labrecque which having been released just two years before Jesus of Montreal forms an important element of the environment into which the film was released.

    These themes continue into his work in the present day. Arcand's latest film, La Régne dela Beauté (2014) also touches on hospitals and satirises audiences (yawning on the one hand versus sycophantic praise on the other). It also includes another of Arcand's interests, not included in Gambarato's list, friendship in general and especially the act of eating together and spending time in each other's company. Again there is a link to Jesus du Montré most notably the picnic in the church grounds and the time spent in the homes of Constance and Mirelle.

    Another area I've been delving into is some of the film's allegorical symbolism. Much of this is discussed fairly widely in the standard texts - Daniel as a Christ figure/prophet who is heralded by a John the Baptists figure (who even loses his head), gathers a group of disciples, is tempted at a high place by a lawyer/satan figure, clashes with religious authorities, clears out a venerated building before dying and then being symbolically resurrected. However Janis Pallister brings out some of the subtler flavours here. Daniel's surname (Coulombe), for example, "brings up our association with the Dove of Peace".12. She also associates Daniel's troupe with specific members of Jesus' entourage. Constance maps to Jesus' mother, having known Daniel before and having had and illegitimate child; Martin Durocher is Peter, the rock; Mirelle, whilst not a prostitute, has depended on her sex appeal for her work and will become his most devoted follower; and René with his in doubts and pessimism is a sort of Thomas figure. Parallels are even drawn between the ambulance man who cares for Jesus' body and Joseph of Arimathea.13

    Elsewhere Pallister seems to reject and then warm to the idea that Daniel's heart being carried into the heavens in an airplane is a form of ascension and, along similar lines I would add that post Daniel's "death" on the cross, his descent into the subway ties in with the idea from 1 Peter 3:9 / the Apostles Creed about Jesus descending "into Hell" and/or preaching to the "imprisoned spirits".14 There's also an ambiguity around Daniel's resurrection. Is it physically in his rising and discharging from hospital; allegorically in his organs being used to give others life; or spiritually in the way it insires Mirelle to follow in his footsteps; or, I suppose all three?

    These final scenes inspired by a real life conversation Arcand had. "A physician had told me that there are certain types of cranial traumatism that allow a period of 'resurrection' after the accident before the person actually dies. And the physician said that people who die from such traumatism are 'god sent'...because their organs are still in perfect condition of transplant."15

    Finally, Rene's role within the film is also pivotal. The planetarium scene - which riffs on Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is also identified as crucial moment. It's not just about Rene's background, but more about our small place in the universe and the importance of seizing the day despite all of this. As René's narration puts it
    “Earth will revert to the galactic gases that formed it. But we will be long gone. The world began without man and will end the same way. When the last soul vanishes from Earth the universe will bear no trace of man's passing."
    As Arcand explains "The 'Big Bang' scene is all-encompassing than the passion-play and ultimately shapes it. The consciousness of death and emptiness is omnipresent".16


    Incidentally, I realised when I started writing this post (though not when I conceived it) that I haven't actually written a review of this film yet - though I have recorded a podcast on it.

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    1 - Cited in Janis L Pallister, “The Cinema of Quebec: Masters in Their Own House". p. 383
    2 - Réal La Rochelle, "Sound design and music as tragédie en musique: the documentary practice of Denys Arcand" in Loiselle,André and McIlroy, Brian (eds), "Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand". (1995) Trowbridge, Flicks Books. p.38
    3 - Janis L Pallister - “Masters". p. 382
    4 - Pallister – “Masters". p. 382
    5 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music", p.44
    6 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music", p.45
    7 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music" p.47
    8 - Gambarato, Renira Rampazzo. "Talking Objects of Denys Arcand", in 'Revista Lumina'. 2009. Vol. 3. No. 2. p.1-12.
    9 - Pallister - "Masters", p.390
    10 - Pallister - "Masters", p.390
    11 - Peter Wilkins, "No Big Picture: Arcand and his US Critics" in Loiselle,André and McIlroy, Brian (eds), "Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand". (1995) Trowbridge, Flicks Books. p.123
    12 - Pallister - "Masters", p.383
    13 - Pallister - "Masters", p.383-7, though some of these observations are my own.
    14 - Pallister - "Masters", p.392
    15 - André Loiselle, "I only know where I come from, not where I am going": a conversation with Denys Arcand in Loiselle,André and McIlroy, Brian (eds), "Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand". (1995) Trowbridge, Flicks Books. p.157
    16 - La Rochelle - "Sound design and music". p.48

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    Friday, February 19, 2016

    Risen (2016)

    63 years ago now, The Robe broke new ground by being the first film to be shot in a widescreen aspect ratio. Whilst the makers of Risen don't quite share that ambition, they have made a film which tells a similar story, that of a sceptical Roman soldier who finds himself hunting the truth about Jesus.

    The start of the film is less familiar as Joseph Fiennes’ tribune Clavius stumbled in to a desert tavern. Moments later, with a drink in his hand, he's telling the inn-keeper about the strange events of the last few weeks and we’re transported back to a scene of Clavius’ men on the offensive against a bunch of Jewish rebels lead by Barabbas.

    For viewers familiar with the story, this instantly raises some questions. Is this before or after his release on place of Jesus? Is this even the same Barabbas? The next scene – of a debris strewn building – brings further unfamiliarity, although these questions are all sewn up by the end of the scene. Nevertheless the stage is set for a sort of first century Sherlock Holmes novel, there's intrigue, a seemingly impossible incident and a no one else is equipped to work it all out. Spoiler alert: Jesus is back from the dead.

    The chief priests are determined to cover it up of course and a weak Pontius Pilate demurs to their increasingly pernickity requests. The problem is though that Clavius and his men can’t find the body to disprove the growing rumours. Their also struggling to track down the disciples, or get any sense out of then when they do. It's nice to see Bartholomew getting something to do for a change, but he can only grin inanely, almost as if he's stoned, and make Clavius think he's an idiot.

    To delve further into the plot really would be giving away spoilers, but the filmmakers make one unexpected decision that radically changes the nature and direction of the story. I don't think it works. Nevertheless it's interesting to see a film portray various stories from the gospels which occur after the crucifixion. Traditionally, many of these are omitted by traditional Jesus films, even from those which cover the resurrection. Conversely, many of the Roman-Christian films start after these events have happened.

    Here though they get a full airing bringing with them some nice new angles as well and there's a good balance between the time spent focussing on the Romans and the time spent with Jesus’ followers.

    The need for the film to appeal to the faith-based market does lead to some interesting decisions. Not unsurprisingly Jesus is given a loincloth on the cross, but bizarrely we also find Clavius and Pilate wearing them in their Roman-style communal bath. Mary Magdalene is still a prostitute despite recent attempts by some to free her from that association and, in the film’s cheesiest moment, Jesus’ burial cloths is shown to bear the same image as the Turin Shroud. When I recently gate-crashed a preview screening of the film for a Catholic audience, even they tittered at that one.

    Less amusing however is the film’s failure to avoid various anti-Semitic stereotypes, most troublingly the reference to the Jewish crowd as a “lathered mob” and their jeering and cheering at Jesus’ death. On top of this Caiaphas repeatedly going back to Pilate to prevent a story getting out about a resurrection depict him as sly, paranoid, dishonest and irritating. And sadly, except for Jesus’ followers, there are no ‘good Jews’ to give the films a more balanced perspective.

    The film does a lot well though as well. Firstly the visuals are generally very good. Risen was filmed in Malta and Spain and the striking landscapes and interesting architecture provide a great backdrop to the story. Director Kevin Reynolds, of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame, introduces some interesting visual ideas as well, such as the gradual change in Clavius’ clothing reflecting the changes he is undergoing on the inside.

    There are also a few nice touches with the music such as Hitchcock-esque strings on one occasion when Jesus disappears suddenly – a nice reminder of the inherent strangeness of those post-resurrection stories. And whilst the time Jesus spends on the screen is relatively brief, it's a good performance by Cliff Curtis.

    Unfortunately the positive elements are unlikely to add up to enough for Risen to find a wide audience outside the faith-based sector. The premise itself offers scant enough temptation for those with little or no Christian faith and whilst they may be drawn in initially, the direction the film chooses to go is just too much to swallow. It becomes preachy rather than thought-provoking thereby undoing a lot of the good work of the first few scenes. As an outside observer I can see why Clavius believes in his story. I'm just not sure I can believe in it myself.

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    Thursday, February 11, 2016

    This Man Went to the Risen Preview. What He Heard Will Astound You.

    ...or maybe not. But in any case last week I got the chance to go to Rome. For a special preview screening of Risen. The opportunity came my way thanks to my friend Peter Chattaway so we agreed I'd write up a report of the event for his blog before the film's release date next week. Peter has just posted the piece here:

    Report from Rome: The makers of Risen talk about Bible movies, film noir, sympathetic killers, and meeting the Pope

    I'll be posting my review of the film itself here as normal in about a week or so, but its a real privilege to get a piece published on Peter's blog - he doesn't let just anyone do that.

    The evening itself was a great experience, reminiscent of heading to London back in 2008 for the première of the BBC's The Passion, only without the added joy of meeting Robert Powell (and indeed, Mark Goodacre). And trip itself was a blast - I suppose Rome was on my bucket list and it is just such an incredible city. They have so much ancient history there they don't know what to do with it all. It totally lived up to the hype and then some. I think I walked about 15-18 miles in just over 24 hours and, if you get the chance I'd strongly recommend it.

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    Wednesday, February 03, 2016

    Der Galiläer (1921)

    Of all the silent Jesus films that I have reviewed for this blog Der Galiläer is the most wonderfully composed; it is also the one that most unmistakably reflects the anti-Semitism that was rife in interwar Germany. For many that is a reason to avoid it, but such a conclusion is naïvely wrongheaded. The atmosphere that grew up in Germany, and many other parts of Europe, was fed and watered by films such as these. The tragic conclusion of this trajectory should mean we take all the more notice of a 1920s German Jesus film not less. Is it any wonder that when The Passion of the Christ came out on 2004 most church leaders shrugged it off without reference to the shameful history of dramatic portrayals of Jesus’ last days?

    Der Galiläer is all the more pernicious for it's seductively beautiful images. The film cuts between artful close-ups and perfectly composed wide long shots. Shots such as the above mid-shot are few and far between. The close-ups are all the finer for being wordless, pausing for long enough to give proper consideration to what the characters are thinking. On one occasion we are even shown it as Jesus has a vision of the cross whilst praying in Gethsemane.

    In contrast the wider shots, often featuring hundreds of extras, are grand yet vibrant and chaotic. By the time Kaiphas whips up the Jewish crowd in the marketplace and leads them to forcefully appeal his initial decision, mob rule is very much in the air. Pilate’s fear is evident, his capitulation made all the more ‘understandable’ by the distortion.

    The other thing that is notable about the wider compositions is how they echo so much of Christian art. Whilst this is hardly uncommon in silent Bible films, the pace is a little more stately, the tone a little more graceful and the poses held for a little longer than is normally the case. Unsurprisingly Leonardo’s "Last Supper" is reproduced, but many other works are apparent too. Even for se of us that cannot name them, but know them when we see them. Yet even this has its dark side, suggesting continuity between the historic church and the depiction before us.

    The anti-Semitic elements build as the film goes on, but the focus on the crowd is there from the start. The film starts with celebrations on the street at the news that Jairus's daughter has been healed. Shortly after Jesus makes his triumphal entry to huge acclaim, his progress halted only to restore Bartimaeus's sight. The crowd follow Jesus the temple but are faced-down by Kaiphas and his high priests reasserting their traditional authority. Jesus heads away whilst the Sanhedrin schemes as to how to destroy him with Judas’ help.

    Visually the depiction of Kaiphas and these other Jewish leaders underlines what the film suggests throughout. Not only does the cameras shoot them from below allowing their faces to loom over the camera, but the actors themselves seem to comply with every anti-Semitic stereotype in the book. The actors distort their wizened features to arch their eyebrows, flare their nostrils and rub their hands. Even their headwear is comes into play, topped with horns suggesting the “children of the devil” accusation that has proved so troublesome.
    Following the Last Supper Jesus is arrested, tried and brought before Pilate, but when he fails to deliver the required verdict, Kaiaphas takes to the streets to whip up the crowd into a frenzy to pressure Pilate to giving them the verdict they want. As described above, the ease with which Kaiphas is able to manipulate the Jewish crowd, and the fear it evokes in a hardened Roman leader like Pilate is one of the most troubling parts of the film. The crowd remains on the verge of a riot all along the road to the cross, seeming only to disperse when the earth quakes and the temple curtain is torn in two. Curiously the actual crucifixion is particularly brief – far shorter than the scene where Barabbas is freed, or even than the road to the cross. The stronger emphasis on this scene – where Barabbas is called a murderer and yet still the massive crowd call down Jesus blood on them and their children – really does pose the question as to what the filmmakers intentions were.

    So it's good that the Bundesarchiv-filmarchiv have restored the film. If films about Jesus are to retain their validity, they need to face their chequered past.

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    Monday, February 01, 2016

    Bellucci: From Malèna to Magdalena

    Whilst the path the film treads is not unpredictable, you might want to look away if you've not seen it as I'm going to give away a few key spoilers.

    As I'm heading to Roman this week, I watched the 2000 Italian film Malèna last week. The film, set during the Second World War stars Monica Bellucci as a woman who receives news of her husband's death in combat and as a result has to fend for herself against the town's more predatory inhabitants. As might be expected Bellucci's character, Melèna, has a considerable number of suitors, not least the teenage narrator whose desire for Melèna leads to voyeurism. Her other suitors however are less keen to keep their distance with many seeking to exploit her lack of finances for their own sexual desires.

    At the same time Melèna's reputation with the town's women is getting worse and worse leading her to greater isolation and desperation. Ultimately she ends up fraternising with the Nazis and so when the way ends and the Nazis leave she is left to face the town's ire. What begins as a celebration of the town's liberation ends with Melèna being dragged from the barracks in front of a baying crowd, stripped, beaten and then having her hair cut off. The scene (from which the above image is taken) is strongly reminiscent of John 8:2-10 - the woman caught in adultery, and, of course, with Bellucci also playing this role four years later in The Passion of the Christ it's not hard to make a connection. I don't know if Gibson had seen this film - or even just this clip - when he made the film, but certainly the way it is staged and shot contains many similarities, as does the way Bellucci performs it.

    However, in contrast to The Passion, this film's lead does not intervene to rescue the woman at the centre of the mob. He waits, and watches, certain that he should step in, but too afraid to do the right thing. For those used to such scenes featuring Jesus - or any of a number of heroes from similar scenes in other genres - the lack of intervention is agonising.

    There are a number of other interesting links with Mary Magdalene in this film as well. Firstly there is the idea of Melèna as a fallen woman. Whilst it's church tradition, rather than the Bible, that has portrayed her so, its certainly part of the reason why that scene resonates so much.

    Not unrelated to this is Melèna's changing image, most notably from a brunette to a red-head to a bleach blonde. This is perhaps rather tenuous, but there is something about Magdalene's transformation that could be expressed as a reinvention or a change of image.

    More importantly there is the way the film finishes with the reappearance of Malèna's husband - a resurrection of sorts - who returns as a heroic if scarred figure who restores Malèna to wholeness once again. And perhaps thanks to her admirer being economical with the truth, he sees her without sin. Perhaps its because I am also thinking a lot about Jesus of Montreal at the moment, but I found the way the film explores truth, the perception of truth, oral transmission, kind lies and vicious lies to be very interesting.

    Incidentally I believe I only watched the international cut of this film. There is, apparently, also a scene which was cut from this version which shows Malèna playing the part of Mary the Mother of Jesus as part of some kind of religious pageant (see it here). It seems to me that this changes the meaning of story massively. I'm still thinking over the impact of that.

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