• Bible Films Blog

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

    Matt Page


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    Saturday, April 22, 2017

    Birdsong vs the Biblical Epic

    Two years after The Nativity Story and Spanish/Catalan director Albert Serra produced El cant dels ocells (Birdsong). In contrast to The Nativity Story which sought to position itself as a new, family friendly take on the epic in the hope of reproducing the success of The Passion of the Christ, Birdsong deliberately took almost the opposite approach. Just as Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo opposed 50s and 60s Biblical Epics such as King of Kings, so Birdsong can be seen as an antidote to the excesses of The Passion. Rather than the cast of thousands Birdsong  had a cast of just six. Instead of excessive, lavish sets the film is nearly all filmed outside on deserted landscapes. There are no moral victories, promises of sex, or analogies between the past and the future, indeed the line between the two is somewhat blurred. Birdsong is essentially an anti-epic.

    This 'anti-epic' style is typical of Serra's broader body of work, "a cinema of gentle observation and slow demeanour, in which eccentric characters incarnated by non-professional actors bring new dimensions to well-known fictional and religious archetypes". (Delgado 2013: 12) Two years earlier he had produced a similarly sparse version of the Don Quixote story Honor de Cavelleria (2006) and his 2013 film Història de la meva mort (Story of my Death) similarly drained the stories of Cassanova and Dracula of their melodramatic excesses.

    Serra's work is just one example of "a new kind of cinema that exists on the margins of the Spanish film industry, to question its premises." (Javier 2014: 95-96) Javier suggests that films such as this "create images that seem to resist the recent explosion of our current 'multi-screen' reality. As opposed to the 'excess image' dominating screens in the contemporary world, this cinema opts wholeheartedly for simplicity and restraint". (2014: 96) Nowhere does this movement contrast more greatly that with the excess of the Biblical Epic.

    The most obvious indicator of this is Serra's long, static takes, reminiscent of the style of Roberto Rossellini's later films. Rossellini held that by minimising artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, not only created more genuine films, but it also reminds the viewer that what they are watching is just a reconstruction, not the real thing. Such long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack make the viewing the film not unlike that of viewing paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with great meaning from very little.

    Instead of putting the film in context and recounting all the events surrounding Jesus' birth, or even just covering the complete story of the magi's journey, Serra "reduces the symbolic journey of the Three Wise Men to the characters' simple wanderings through stark mountainous areas or across wide open plains where they are mere blots on the landscape and, on many occasions, actually disappear from view". (Javier 2014: 97). Such a portrayal of these "solitary wanderings undermine narrative momentum, inviting the viewer to contemplate, in silent long takes, images of the empty landscape he traverses" (De Luca 2012: 194). The "temporal elongation of the shot surpasses by far the demands of the story". (2013: 193)

    Indeed, so low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment can almost creep up on the viewer without them really noticing. When the kings finally find the Christ child there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. This is s a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters. Serra produces "a moment of pure reverence, highlighted by the film's only instance of non-diegetic music, when the three men finally prostrate themselves before the mother and child, and the family's private life takes on monumental significance." (O'Brien 2011: 109-110)

    It is this moment that most captures "the tradition of Dreyer, Rossellini [and] Pasolini" as the director intended. (Hughes) It's an understated moment that rather than relying on pomp, ceremony, a powerful soundtrack and over-wrought acting performances is built on the slow realism of al that has gone before it. It not only brings to mind the climaxes of Dreyer's Ordet (The Word, 1955), Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) and the moment when Christ is removed from the cross in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), but extends the tradition.

    Part of the reason this strategy is successful is the way it humanises the three kings, going further than even Pasolini dared. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They even bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. Yet despite this, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage, yet somehow the characters are very engaging.

    Serra also sees something "absurd" in the characters' mission.
    All of the ideology, what Jesus means, we added later. We’re talking about the pioneers. Just three men who probably feel stupid, you know? They don’t know why they are going to see this child, or where they’re going, or how long it will take. They’re following a star to find a small child in order to adore him. (Hughes 2009)
    This forms an interesting contrast with the approach in The Nativity Story. Both films seek to inject humour by portraying three men who have come to be known as wise, acting like ordinary people. Yet in Birdsong this is done without revealing a great deal about who these men are or stripping away the mystery; in contrast, in The Nativity Story, everything is explained, the characters are given names, backstories and motivations, yet both the humour and the attempt to draw parallels between us and them falls flat.

    Just two years, then, after New Line had produced the first Nativity epic, this film becomes the first Nativity 'anti-epic'. A tendency that would be repeated twice more in the following decade in Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010) and Le Fils de Joseph (Son of Joseph, 2016).

    Delgado, Maria. M. (2013), 'Introduction', in M. M. Delgado and R. W. Fiddian (eds.), Spanish Cinema 1973-2000: Auteurism, Politics, Landscape and Memory, 1-20, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    De Luca, Tiago. (2012), 'Realism of the Senses: A Tendency in Contemporary World Cinema' in Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam, Rajinder Dudrah (eds.) Theorizing World Cinema,183-206, London: I.B Tauris.

    Hughes, Darren (2009), 'Albert Serra Interviewed on El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong)', Senses of Cinema. Available online: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/albert-serra-interview/(accessed 22/4/2017).

    Moral, Javier. (2014), 'Behind the Enigma Construct: A Certain Trend in Spanish Cinema' in Duncan Wheeler, Fernando Canet (eds.), (Re)viewing Creative, Critical and Commercial Practices in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, 93-104, Bristol: Intellect Books.

    O'Brien, Catherine. (2011), The Celluloid Madonna: from Scripture to Screen. London, U.K. : Wallflower Press.

    O'Brien, Catherine (2016) 'Women in the Cinematic Gospels'. In: Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, (ed.) The Bible in Motion : a Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, vol. 2, 449-462, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

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    Wednesday, April 19, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 4 - John's Gospel

    This is the last in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Mark's Gospel and so today we end with the Gospel of John.

    As is well known, John's Gospel is significantly different from the other three "synoptic" gospels. Whilst the resurrection scenes are not an exception we do see something interesting in how John essentially takes the basic plot structure from the other three gospels and expands it with the writer's own ideas as well as adding on a significant chunk of new material towards the end. This is essentially a microcosm of what John does with the Synoptic text as a whole. (I realise that some dispute whether John was even familiar with any of the synoptics).

    What we have in John's gospel is Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, finding it empty, running to tell the apostles, who run back to the tomb and find it empty. When they leave she comes face to face with Jesus, although initially she mistakes him for someone else. That evening Jesus appears to the disciples. John then adds a 2nd appearance eight days later, this time where the "doubting" disciple is present. Then we get a later incident, sometimes called an appendix or the epilogue where Jesus appears on a beach and cooks the disciples fish for breakfast before rehabilitating Simon Peter. One of the reasons this second chapter (21) is sometimes called an epilogue or appendix is because the text seems to have come to a close at 20:31, but then starts up again.

    Overall these incidents are not that well represented in film, indeed when thinking about them the main two that spring to mind are the two word for word adaptations, one from the Visual Bible in 2003 and 2015's version from the Lumo Project. That said two versions of the appearance to Mary Magdalene - the episode from John's resurrection scenes that gets the most coverage in Jesus film - are worth a brief mention.

    Brief Mentions
    The first is in The Miracle Maker (2000) which as I alluded to yesterday gives better coverage to the events of the resurrection than practically any other film. Here we get a nice point-of-view shot as Mary first sees the risen Jesus, partially accounting for her failing to recognise him.

    Also mentioned yesterday was the BBC's The Passion (2008). As with the Road to Emmaus scene in Luke's Gospel where Jesus isn't recognised by seemingly close friends, the film uses a different actor to portray Jesus as he meets Mary.

    The Lumo Project's Gospel of John (2015)
    So how do the word for word translations do? Some of the Lumo Project's Gospel of John of the resurrection  are available on YouTube. The Magdalene, Thomas and Simon Peter scenes are obviously filmed specifically for this instalment but there's quite a bit of footage that is recycled in the other films. Part of the disappointment with this version is that it doesn't really do anything particularly interesting with what it has available and conversely part of the disappointment is that, again, some of the nudges in the text are ignored. I suspect it's the practicalities of trying to create re-useable footage, more than a desire to minimise the distinctives of each gospel that is the driving consideration here, but the result is much the same.

    The Visual Bible' Gospel of John (2003)
    In contrast I find the Visual Bible' Gospel of John more moving and it uses a couple of nice filmic techniques to good effect. It actually spends fifteen minutes on these two chapters, not quite as long as The Passion, but still one of the longest treatments.

    The first thing that really stands out here is that Magalene's case of mistaken identity is because Jesus is rather oddly crouched down behind a plant. This seems a little bit odd (what was he doing at that moment? Had he got distracted from his important business of making his debut post-resurrection appearance by a stray weed or something?), but is one way to deal with a somewhat odd bit of the story.

    What really stands out about this film's resurrection sequence - memorable to me even before I watched it, is the very end of the film. As Jesus' conversation with Peter draws to a close, the group of them are walking along the beach. Peter gestures towards the disciple that Jesus loved and asks "What about this man?". Jesus replies "If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you". The "other" disciple is standing behind the two of them but compositionally he is in the middle of the frame between Jesus and Peter. Once Jesus has spoken the line he an Peter walk past the camera (which is tracking back very slowly) such that the other disciple is left alone in the middle of the frame and gradually moves closer to the camera looking more than a little taken aback. Then the footage freezes, the image turns sepia and then merges into a sketch -type version of the image (pictured above). At the same time, the music to the film - which I find to be one of it's strong points - swells in a particularly moving way. The freeze frame/sepia-ing/distorting of this image really conveys the passing of time and the sense that the live action we have been witnessing passed into history. It's my favourite moment in the entire film, poignantly placing an emphasis on what happened to these followers, and the church who followed in their wake, after the story we have seen has been completed. And when it comes to the resurrection, perhaps that is the most significant thing.

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    Tuesday, April 18, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 3 - Luke's Gospel

    This is the third in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Mark's Gospel and so today it's onto Luke.

    There are three Jesus films that strike me as reflecting something of the ending to Luke's Gospel. Firstly there is the recent Lumo Project version The Gospel of Luke (2016). A few of the relevant scenes from this film can be viewed online. This time the narrator is Richard E. Grant, but it's obvious that much of the footage - at least of the initial resurrection is that we find in their version of Mark (and indeed John).

    As I say in my review of Mark there's an interesting tension in this between reflecting the distinct portrait of these events that Mark provides and the purported historical events that stand behind them. But one of the disadvantages of this approach is the footage doesn't always act out clear stage directions from the text, so here there are no men in dazzling clothes and no-one puts their face to the ground.

    The Road to Emmaus scene is new though and as with other films has Jesus half covering his face to explain why Cleopas and his companion don't recognise him. This seems to me to be a rather odd approach. If Jesus meant to conceal his identity surely he could have done it more effectively: If he meant to be visible then why not make it more plain and uncover his face?  This halfway house just makes it seem like a key test of faith is the ability to recognise faces in bad light.

    The second film to mention when talking about Luke's resurrection is the Genesis Project's extended version of Luke's Gospel, from which the Jesus film (1979) was edited. This also employs the partial face covering tactic on the Road to Emmaus (pictured), but does present the other aspects more or less as directed. I don't really like the soft focus in the upper room scene though.

    Lastly, as films go, I tend to think The Miracle Maker (2000), whilst a harmonised Jesus film is a fairly Lucan take on proceedings. That said after the resurrection the script seems to switch to John as the primary source, such that there are a further 3 episodes not found in Luke. However, the shape of the narrative at this point remains Lucan with the discovery by women, Simon seeing Jesus (24:34), the appearance on the Road to Emmaus, and then just a single appearance to the disciples in the upper room. The Johanine inclusions are more flourishes within that broader narrative than the text that defines the text of the narrative.

    For whatever reason very few films feature the Road to Emmaus episode, although this has increased in recent years, but this is certainly the first film I think of when this episode comes to mind. Again we get the same tactic with face-covering. The one portrayal of this scene that does something different is the BBC's The Passion (2008) which uses a different actor in various parts of the resurrection episode - certainly a more interesting, and not necessarily a more controversial, way t solve the question of why Jesus was not recognised.

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    Last Days of Jesus (2017)

    Screened on Channel 5 on Good Friday (having premiered on PBS on April 4th) this is the latest 'controversial' documentary promising to tell us something new. And it did. As seasoned as I am in these things, I must admit that I had not previously known a great deal about the head of the praetorian guard around the time Jesus was ministering, Lucius Aelius Sejanus; nor about Manaen the Herod Antipas's courtier/foster brother who is mentioned as a leader in the early church in Acts 13; nor about the reason why Herod took a shine to his brother's wife; nor even, for that matter, the times of year when palm fronds are/were available in Jerusalem. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure I even knew what a "frond" was before watching this.

    The challenge for the viewer in all these situations is to both pick up new information, but maintain a healthy scepticism about what is being presented. This documentary is certainly no exception, leaning heavily, as it does, on the work of Simcha Jacobovici. Jacobovici was the driving force behind 2007's documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus and whilst someone else's voice is used to present the UK version of the documentary, Jacobovici is listed as an executive producer, is perhaps the most prominent of the talking heads and, based on the way he addresses the camera, may have actually presented the programme in the US cut of the film. The theories here are a little less out there than they were in The Lost Tomb of Jesus, but they're still essentially minority positions which have seemingly found a platform primarily because of their ability to gain interest (and therefore an audience and sponsors) rather than primarily because of the veracity of their new theories.

    The central thesis here is that Jesus was under the control of Herod Antipas and perhaps also Pontius Pilate as the more acceptable face of religious reformation (compared to John the Baptist). Herod was attempting to curry favour with Sejanus, such that when Jesus was arrested around the time of Sejanus's downfall he was left politically impotent for a while. Sejanus's downfall and the resulting temporary impotence of Herod and Pilate gave Caiaphas and Annas the balance of power for a few short months. The high priest used this temporary cessation to get Jesus, who threatened his power, executed.

    This is all very well, but it does appear to leave the whole theory balancing on the supposed seasonal lack of availability of palm fronds and very passing mentions of people connected with Herod in the writings of Luke. Suffice to say I don't think they can bear the weight of the argument.

    The filmmakers claim that the only time the palm fronds were available to wave around was in the autumn, not the spring so that the events depicted as occurring in Holy "Week" may have lasted for as long as six months. This isn't a particularly radical revision in itself, there is almost certainly some aspects of the Holy Week narratives where the symbolism became more important than the cold hard facts. The filmmakers assert that it's in the week (failing to recall the axiom about a week being a long time in politics), but there's no reason why it couldn't be either the presence of the fronds, or the timing being around Passover that were imported to give the story extra theological power. If the filmmakers want to question some of these things, fine. But they look at a picture that doesn't, to them, appear to quite piece together and then seem to hone in on one particular detail without justifying that is. Then they use that to make a massive supposition - that Jesus's demise was linked to Sejanus'. But again, it's clear that Jesus was just one of a number of religious/political reformers. What's remarkable about him isn't the number of his followers, but what they said happened after he was executed.

    But the link to Sejanus is weak anyway. It's assumed that the money that Joanna the wife of Chuza (Herod's chief of staff, we are told) was politically tied. This again is an unsupported assertion. It's not impossible, but it does assume that Joanna was acting under her husband's orders rather than her own discretion and that Jesus was susceptible to this kind of bribe. Furthermore, the fact that only Luke mentions her raises further questions. Mark is the oldest gospel why did he not mention her impact if it was so important? Joanna may have been Luke's source for what went on in Herod's court hence why only he includes the trial before Herod, but this suggests the link with Herod was hardly as pivotal as the filmmakers would have us believe (or else Mark would have included it). It seems at least as likely that Luke is doing as Luke often does and bringing in people around the margins of the story - particularly women (such as Joanna) and non-Jews (such as Antipas).

    And then there's Manaen/Manahen who turns up in Acts 13. Whilst the link with Herod is potentially significant these events are at least as late as 44AD (after the death of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12). This is a big window of time. Large enough, certainly, for the Christian movement to reach and convince at least one prominent courtier to join them, but also probably too large for a Herodian spy to be still bothering to infiltrate the movement of a failed political reformer. The presence of Manaen's name seems unlikely to bolster a claim that Jesus was Herod's man.

    Whilst the theories of the documentary do rather tail off as its thesis becomes more apparent, Last Days is well made with the usual mix of talking heads, dramatic re-enactments, motion stills of ancient-looking texts and location shooting. The pacing is good and the arguments, for all their faults, are well laid out. Certainly this is well above average for Channel 5, even if their penchant for complicated conspiracy theories over more straightforward explanations ultimately lets them down.


    Monday, April 17, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 2 - Mark's Gospel

    This is the second in a series of short posts for Easter this year looking at film portrayals of the resurrection. The idea is to take each of the Gospels in turn and look at one or two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel. Yesterday I looked at the resurrection in Matthew's Gospel and so today it's onto Mark.

    As I mentioned in my recent review of the Lumo Project's The Gospel of Mark
    The agreed upon text of Mark appears to comes up short at chapter 16 verse 8 (before any sightings of the risen Jesus) and all we're left with is a series of fragments where others have sought to create a new ending. It's a scenario that suggested a series of interesting possibilities cinematically...
    Sadly no film has really sought to end their film in quite this way. As I noted in that review, rather than ending the film at Mark 16:8, or even dramatising the different alternate endings (but in a way that is notably different from the rest of the film) we simply get the most popular of the alternate endings presented in the same way as the rest of the film. Whilst it would obviously be too much to ask to see a Wayne's World style ending, perhaps the use of a different narrators voice, or a different actor playing Jesus might have been interesting.

    Lumo's version of verses 16:1-8 (which you can view online) does follow the text of these eight verses fairly closely. There's a group of four women rather than three but they arrive at a tomb that is already open and go inside. They don't however meet a young man dressed in white, even if there is a hint that a white glowing object is present in the tomb. Then they run away from the tomb and the scene ends.

    The absence of the young man dressed in white is a bit of shame. Those seeking to harmionise the gospels naturally assume he is an angel as we find in Matthew, but that is not actually what Mark's text says, and it's important to remember that Matthew was using Mark as his major source. Both Matthew and Luke tweak Mark's original wording, though in different directions. Incidentally, there have been some attempts to link the young man in the tomb with the other anonymous young man from Gethsemane who is sometimes known as the Naked Fugitive. (He is also absent from the relevant shot in the Lumo Project). Partly it's because these are the only two times that this particular NT Greek word for young man (νεανίσκος) is used in Mark and partly because of further references to a young man in an apocryphal text called the Secret Gospel of Mark. I must admit I find all this idle speculation interesting, but ultimately not very useful and highly tenuous. There's very little to suggest Secret Mark is any kind of credible source. But I digress.

    A key question here is what are the options for the ending of Mark? Broadly speaking there are three. The first is that one of the endings we have was actually the original. One response to my Gospel of Mark review was from James Snapp who has argued elsewhere that the textual issues with the main "alternate" with Mark are overstated. I must confess not to be an expert, but note that even the majority of evangelical scholars concede that differences in style/vocab and the absence of this missing piece in some manuscripts is a little problematic. If Snapp is correct however then the Lumo project's ending is practically.

    The second option is that the real original ending was somehow lost. Some have suggested that it was probably a key component of the endings we find in Matthew and Luke, perhaps the material that is common to both. From a filmic point of view this is rather unsatisfying. The text cannot be re-created. Even if we could determine that this was actually what happened we don't know if it was burnt by fire, eaten by worms or deliberately suppressed. One could try to recreate it from the endings of Matthew/Luke but even this would be highly speculative. Mark's distinct voice would be lost and any attempt to recreate it would probably reflect the new author's agenda and perspectives more than Mark's.

    The third option however is potentially more fruitful. This is the theory that, for whatever reason, Mark intended the gospel to end at verse 8. This was perhaps controversial which is why Matthew and Luke added their own as did the unknown writers who sought to provide a climax that was (according to them) more fitting. But perhaps Mark intended his gospel to end on a question mark, something more mysterious, unknown and open-ended.

    The only film that really fits in to this perspective is Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975). Here we get a group of around 8-10 people heading to Jesus' tomb on the Sunday morning. The group is a mixture of men and women (again at least four), but as they approach they are met first by two soldiers running the other way and then by another woman (seemingly Mary Magdalene). This prompts Mary the mother of Jesus to run on ahead. She climbs up to the tomb and on finding it empty falls to her knees and worships (as pictured above), with the rest of the group on the ground below.

    Whilst this fits the details of verses 16:1-8 no better (there is still no young man, and Magdalene is not mentioned as reaching the tomb before Jesus' mother in Mark) it does seem, to me, that it accords better with the possibility that Mark intended his gospel to end at this point. As I noted in my review a few years ago this is typical of Rossellini's strategy in his history films:
    Jesus has gone, and Mary kneels in worship, but the conclusion is far from solid and there are no appearances of the risen Messiah... It is not denying the miraculous necessarily, but almost placing the viewer in the moment of its occurrence, almost unable to tell yet that something miraculous has happened. Only on reflection do we work out what has happened.

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    Cleopatra (1934) and What it Says about DeMille

    Whilst Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (1934) may not quite be a biblical film it's worth of a few words of consideration here not only because it features at least one biblical character (Herod the Great), but also because it's one DeMille's string of ancient world films with at least connotations of the biblical epic and it's really rather revealing.

    The biblical links, such as they are pretty much come down to a brief cameo by Herod the Great in the second half of the film. The first half looks at Cleopatra's relationship with Julius Caesar and is brought to a halt by his murder at the senate. There are a couple of shots here that look like they may have influenced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), miost notably the ones where Brando's Mark Antony address the crowd. (Though it's possible they both depend on an independent source such as a painting).

    Antony (long-time DeMille collaborator Henry Wilcoxon) arrives in Egypt and is quickly met by Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) who pulls out all the stops to try and impress him. It's not quite an orgy scene as per Sign of the Cross (1932), but it fulfils more or less the same function. More of that later. Whatever her methods Cleopatra manages to ensnare Mark Antony which begins to become a problem in Rome as Octavian accrues more power and then Herod arrives. It's perhaps hardly surprising. This was a rare romantic leading role for Wilcoxon whereas Colbert was, by then a big star.
    After The Sign of the Cross and her Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (Columbia, 1934), Claudette Colbert was considered ideal for the role of CLeopatra, and no-one else was seriously considered. But the glorified ingenue of two years before was now a bona fide superstar, and Colbert's new status would create problems on the set during production. (Birchard 2004: 277)
    We know from Josephus that Herod's not only knew Antony, but also had to utilise his political manoeuvring skills to the best of his ability during his benefactor's demise. DeMille condenses this into just a few short scenes. Herod arrives as the guest of Cleopatra (with whom he shared the rights to extracting asphalt from the Dead Sea) and immediately passes on a message from Rome that she ought to consider poisoning her lover. Cleopatra is appalled. It's a surprise, then, when Herod appears in the next scene with Mark Antony and tells him the whole thing. On the surface he is offering reassurance that Cleopatra would never dream of such a thing, but of course he's attempting to sow seeds of doubt in their relationship. It's notable that Cleopatra is marginally less horrified when one of her courtiers suggests shortly afterwards that it would probably be best for the nation if she did as Octavian asked.

    Of course none of this is in the Bible - happening thirty years before Jesus' death, but it's not inconsistent of the man who seems so desperate to cling onto power that Matthew portrays him as murdering the infants of an entire village in order to eliminate threats to his throne. Interestingly Herod does not feature in either the Theda Bara/William Fox's silent Cleopatra (1917) which was difficult to come by even in DeMille's day (Birchard 2004: 277) or the 1963 Liz Taylor and Richard Burton version (which proved to be one of the death knells of the epic genre in general. DeMille's film was a big success).

    For DeMille fans however there's a great deal of interest here, particularly in that not-quite-an-orgy scene. As Lindsay says, "no-one did an orgy like DeMille" (2015: 75). When Mark Antony arrives Cleopatra welcomes him aboard her boat. There then begins a series of seductions, starting with a half-hearted solo effort. When this fails to improve his mood she coyly confesses that she is dressed "to lure you in" and resorts to a more ego stroking "of course you're too clever to fall for all this routine".

    To show her supposed naivety she outlines her "plan" and shows him all that she had lined up including half naked women writhing around on top of an ox. Then a giant net is hauled upon her ship supposedly containing clams, but actually including more semi-clad women bearing clams full of jewels and when Cleopatra, and then Antony, start flinging the jewels around scantily clad servants of both sexes roll around on the floor to get hold of them. Shortly afterwards women dressed as leopards from the waist up appear, roll around on top of one another and start to cartwheel thorough flaming hoops.

    All of this is done in a knowing 'this wouldn't possibly work on a soldier such as you' type of way, perhaps best summed up by the conversation between the two of them:
    Mark Antony: I hope that you know that I know you want me to do this.
    Cleoptra: Dear Antony, I hope you think I know that you know I know
    (they giggle together)
    What's interesting about this knowing scene is that what Cleopatra is seeking to do to Mark Antony mirror what DeMille is trying to do to his audience, namely titillate them whilst giving lip service to their supposed immovability to such tacky, seductive fare.

    The key difference between this film and others that are usually bracketed alongside of it is the moral message that DeMille usually tacks on. In his biblical films the orgy scenes are usually used as to contrast with the behaviour of the godly. It's a fairly transparent device which has been much commented on - use sex to sell the movie and then tag on a moral message to deflect the criticism. But "if one is paying attention, the sex and sadism in The Ten Commandments is almost unbelievable for a film with such strong Sunday school credentials" (Lindsay 2015: 75)

    What I can't quite decide is if DeMille's work here is less acceptable, because without that redemptive message then really various scenes here are just mild porn; or more acceptable, because at least they're not fundamentally hypocritical.

    You'll have noticed a couple of references above to Richard Lindsay's book "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" which I have just finished reading and so naturally it informed some of my thoughts about DeMille, specifically this film.

    Lindsay argues that scenes such as these were "perhaps reflecting his own predilections" (Lindsay 2015: 38). To his mind both "DeMille and Gibson are 'queer' in the sense that their sexual desires, as revealed on screen, do not conform to traditional notions of sexuality as defined by traditional Christian communities." (2015: xxviii). Whereas most commentators tend to take a cynical view that DeMille was just trying to sell sex and dressing it up Lindsay is convinced "DeMille truly believed in the power of the Ten Commandments and the figure of Moses as a moral force for good..." (2015: 61), but that he was a truly conflicted individual.
    "The camp content of his films has often been interpreted as an expression of the conflict between his Victorian piety and his interest in BDSM...practised with a "harem" of women outside his marriage. The misogyny, sadism, and overwrought melodrama of his epics seems to follow naturally from his own passions...so blatant a part of every DeMille film." (Lindsay 2015: 38)
    For Lindsay, DeMille is perhaps best summed up in the sequence from towards the end of The Ten Commandments where "defining the conflicted impulses of his entire body of work, he cuts between Moses on the Mountain receiving the Law and the sexed-up orgy" (2015: 75)

    I think this film is the most blatant indication of DeMille's desires, not just because of this one scene, but in the way the male gaze is so overwhelming in every scene. As Cleopatra, DeMille has Claudette Colbert (who "was ill during most of the production") dressed in a series of ridiculously over-sexualised and revealing costumes. (Higham 1973: 176-77).The audience is repeatedly encouraged to gaze on Colbert as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony did.

    It's also interesting because, shorn of the biblical element a number of DeMille's auteurist touches become more apparent, the line from Logan's Magdalene, through Colbert's Poppea and Lamarr's Delilah to Baxter's Nefertiri is complete. Each of these glamorous women is frequently photographed in loose but scant flowing costumes, surrounded by supposedly men who lose their power in her presence. We get vast palaces. We get jewels. We get leopards as pets, or servants clad in leopard skin.

    And of course usually we get another "DeMille signature--scenes of naked women in bathtubs". (Lindsay 2015: 9) Yet strangely, despite the fact that sources as far back as Pliny and Cassius Dio have suggested that Cleopatra used to bathe in asses' milk, this is the one thing that DeMille doesn't show here, perhaps because showing Colbert in a milk bath had already got him into hot water.

    Having said all that, I want to end this piece with a nice take on this aspect of DeMille's work from a series of posts on Twitter by Fritzi Kramer (@MoviesSilently) which compares DeMille's supposed shortcomings with his predecessor D.W. Griffith.
    Most people assume that his mixture of faith & sleaze was entirely calculating. His background says otherwise. DeMille is an almost perfect split between his flamboyant actress/agent mother & his bookish lay minister father. He was immersed in theater. But his great treat was when his father (who died young) would read to him from the bible in evenings. DeMille's religious beliefs were not exactly in the mainstream but they were from the heart. The conflict between faith & trash was very real for him. He loved both.

    So when people like Lillian Gish & DW Griffith deliver these snotty little slams indicating that DeMille was a hypocrite, it's annoying. DeMille's faith was genuine but it was in conflict with his adoration of spectacle & frank love of trash. That's what makes him interesting. He approaches religious subjects from a place of knowledge, he just has an off-kilter take. And leopard skin. Oh did he love ladies in leopard. I relate to DeMille because I have similar internal conflicts & I find his way of dealing with his to be fascinating.

    Also, his healthy relationship with his mother is probably responsible for his very woman-centric creative team in the silent era. If you want to see what DeMille could do when he had a mask of anonymity, do check out Chicago. The film is snappy, saucy & spicy. DeMille knew his way around a fast-paced crowd-pleaser. I guess the point of all this is that I wish people would give DeMille the same benefit of the doubt they give other directors. DW Griffith makes rapey films glamorizing the KKK & he gets every excuse under the sun. DeMille likes sexy shoes & the bible. I can tell you which one I would be more comfortable taking an elevator ride with.

    Birchard, Robert S. "Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood". (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
    Higham, Charles "Cecil B. DeMille, an Uncensored Biography". (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973).
    Lindsay, Richard "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015).

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    Sunday, April 16, 2017

    The Resurrection on Film
    Part 1 - Matthew's Gospel

    For Easter this year I thought I might make a series of short posts looking at each of the Gospels in turn and taking one or maybe two films that have sought to portray the resurrection in a manner that fits with that particular Gospel.

    Inherent in that is my fascination with the differences between how the various gospels depict the resurrection. Perhaps no incident that is recorded in all four gospels get such different treatment in each and this, combined with the fact that the resurrection is a hard enough thing to understand in the first place, let alone portray means that the resurrection is arguably the least well covered of the major events in Jesus' life.

    Matthew's Gospel has been adapted three times now. The more well known and cinematically revered is Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo and whilst this nicely captures certain aspects of the Gospel, its probably the one place where Pasolini slips from his sole use of Matthew into an approach that incorporates the other gospels a little more. The words are from Matthew, the flying tombstone is not.

    Then there is The Lumo Project's Gospel of Matthew. I've not yet watched this one, but essentially it's acted out footage with the gospel text narrated over the top.

    So I'm going to focus on the Visual Bible's Matthew. Far from the greatest silver screen portrayal of Jesus, but (certainly before the Lump Project's adaptation) the truest to Matthew's literal text. The txt itself is relatively short, just 20 verses compared to 66 for chapter 27 and 75 for chapter 26.

    Here, things are portrayed with the intention of fidelity. The women go to the tomb and find it empty, although we do not actually see the tomb itself. The reason for this is that the dramatic events that the author describes as prefiguring the moment of resurrection are here described rather than shown (with the exception of the earthquake which is portrayed by a shaky camera and a few rocks falling down). This is probably due to the difficulty in portraying credible angels - nearly all attempts at this are distracting - as well as budgetary constraints. It does however also add to the sense that the narrator is using a metaphor rather than offering a literal description. I don't imagine this is intentional, but I'll let you decide for yourselves on the importance of authorial intent.

    We then cut to the women returning from the tomb and meeting Jesus on the road. This is shot from a low angle and Jesus entering the scene from behind the camera. It's a nicely composed moment, which I suppose also catches the sense of not quite being sure who it is we are seeing, at least for a brief moment. It's a shame that it's followed up by a cheesy moment of a slow motion Jesus walking along accompanied by triumphant music. There are no nail marks on Jesus hands though for what it's worth.

    That moment clashes particularly noticeably with the next scene where the Pharisees try to bribe the soldiers. There's no real sense that the soldiers have any fear of the consequences of them failing in their duty. Caiaphas however hides his face in shame, presumably at the deception these faithful Jews are now embroiled in. This is actually a complete contrast with the text which doesn't even mention the Pharisees, and lays the blame with the chief priests and the elders.

    Finally we come to the Great Commission which takes place atop the same rock as the Sermon on the Mount. For a moment it looks like the filmmakers will resist having Jesus look directly in the camera, but then, seemingly unable to help themselves they close with Jesus smiling reassuringly straight at the audience. Artistically it's weak, but it's not hard to appreciate why the filmmakers chose to do it in such a fashion.

    The film ends however with a sort of epilogue: after a long fade to black the camera follows Jesus as he walks towards a lake. He turns for a moment, again looks at the camera and beckons (us) to follow him. He turns on a walks a little further before repeating his "follow me" gesture. The shot freezes mid pose and the credits roll. This ending seems more in keeping with the end of John (21:19's "follow me") than Matthew. Whereas Matthew the gospel gives his audience more of a sending out, here we get Jesus drawing us to himself. Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but then the point of this series is to focus on the little ranges like this that we find.

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    Friday, March 31, 2017

    The Gospel of Mark (2016)

    Years ago I ran a balloon debate on the subject of the four gospels. The participants were each given one of the four gospels, went away to do some preparation and then had to put forward their case as to why their gospel ought to remain at the expense of one of the others. Unsurprisingly, Mark lost. John is the most distinct, Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount, Luke has the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but what does Mark have? It's probably the oldest, but other than that most people would struggle to tell you much about its own distinctive take on the life, death and maybe resurrection of Jesus (but more on that later).

    Mark's Gospel has also been a loser in another way - until the recent release of the Lumo Project's The Gospel of Mark it was the only canonical gospel not to have a word-for-word screen adaptation. Luke was adapted in the seventies, Matthew in the nineties and John just after the turn of the century, but despite rumours that the company who made those two, later, adaptations were planning to record a version of Mark's gospel, nothing ever materialised. Until now.

    The Gospel of Mark has been released as part of the Lumo project, which has produced filmed versions of all four gospels. A not insubstantial part of the reason for the project getting this far is that it has taken a rather unusual approach. Instead of having actors recite their lines at the relevant moment in the film, all the text is spoken by an unseen narrator. The DVD even offers the choice to choose between Rupert Penry-Jones performing the NIV version of the Gospel, or Tim Piggott-Smith's reading of the King James. In contrast to the majority of films about Jesus, which tend to suggest they are getting back to the original historical figure, the use of narration really emphasises the textual nature of the gospel. It's a similar approach to that taken by the Genesis project's Gospel of Luke and Genesis in the 1970s. The characters voices can be heard faintly in the background, speaking Aramaic, but not loud enough to know whether they are speaking the words from Mark's gospel or Matthew's. This has allowed the producers to re-use the same footage in different films even though the precise wording of the two texts may vary. This also de-emphasises the the actors and their acting and places a greater emphasis on the actual text.

    All of which raises a number of interesting issues, particularly for biblical scholars. Some might object, for example, that having the same footage re-used even though the wording is different rather underplays the differences between the gospels. Indeed at times the images don't quite fit the words that are being spoken. We see two donkeys in Jesus' entry into Jerusalem; darkness is said to come, when it manifestly doesn't and, most disappointingly of all, Gethsemane's streaker - one of Mark's most intriguing flourishes - is mentioned but absent.

    This impression that  the differences between the gospels are being somewhat watered down is bolstered by the use of the same actor playing Jesus. Of course, that said, there was only one historical Yeshua so this approach is far from unwarranted. Furthermore the opposite can also be argued. Whilst the reusing the footage might suggest a marginally greater degree of harmony, it does highlight the fact that the latter gospel writers (particularly Matthew and Luke) did simply re-use large chunks of text (/footage) from Mark's gospel (and, in Luke's case either Matthew and/or Q as well).

    Nevertheless, having noted the way the film emphasises text the film also has a strong emphasis on image. It is, at times, beautifully shot, with many of the establishing shots filmed in striking locations. Then there's also the choice of Selva Rasalingam as Jesus. Shorn of the ability to act with his delivery and intonation Rasalingam gives a very physical performance, of a strong, tough Jesus. Many filmmakers have talked about presenting a Jesus who could credibly have spent his younger years working as a tekton (builder/carpenter). This is certainly true of Rasalingam, but the strength in his performance is something far deeper.

    It is also no a performance designed to win over fans cheaply and easily. Whilst once or twice he's a little over smiley for my tastes there are also times where his brusqueness will not appease those who like their Jesus' meek and mild, or to be constantly sporting a smile. You can never please everyone in this respect so I think the balance is about right, particularly for the Gospel of Mark, which of the four canonical portraits, puts the greatest emphasis on Jesus' humanity. It's a challenging portrayal, but in a way that asks good, honest questions about our preconceptions.

    It's also nice to see some of the less popular episodes from Mark get treated, the miracles in particular. One of the distortions of biblical films is that they tend to focus on certain types of miracle. On the one hand there are those that are the most dramatic, or the most spectacular, that look the best on the big screen. On the other hand many filmmakers, choose miracles dependant on their acceptability to cynical modern viewers. 'Miracles' where more 'natural' explanations....

    By restricting themselves to a particular text the filmmakers' choice as to which episodes to include are taken out of their hands. And so these less desirable incidents are included when usually they might not be. So here we see a series of exorcisms, hands healed, someone is given the ability to speak and those that were blind see. Mark's gospel is full of little healings like these, but they are often too understated, or repeated too often to get included in big, gospel-harmonising films. In this film, it's a fascinating reminder that Jesus wasn't just about grand set pieces but about changing individual lives. Few Jesus films contain any more than one exorcism, for example, but Mark's gospel is full of them and it's good to see that put on the screen for once, however out of kilter it seems to the modern world.

    Not dis-similarly it's also good to see Jesus' apocalyptic predictions about the fall of Jerusalem captured on screen in its unadulterated entirety. It's only natural that the majority of filmmakers, omit, greatly abridge, alter or harmonise this speech. Sometimes the results are even rather impressive such as in Jesus of Montreal (1989). Obviously a variation on this speech has appeared in the Genesis Project's Luke and the Visual Bible's Matthew, but in those cases the sources texts have already changed the words we find in Mark. So it's good to see the original, with it's more this-worldly emphasis and its dramatic imagery. The film does well with this as well setting the scene round a campfire (a setting that captures the dark and fiery tone of the speech) but intercutting it with flash forwards to keep things interesting.

    Having done this part so well, it's disappointing that the ending is so unimaginative. The agreed upon text of Mark appears to comes up short at chapter 16 verse 8 (before any sightings of the risen Jesus) and all we're left with is a series of fragments where others have sought to create a new ending. It's a scenario that suggested a series of interesting possibilities cinematically, particularly for an adaptation that puts such an emphasis on the Gospel's text. Sadly, all we get is the most popular of these endings presented as a piece with the rest of chapter 16. Whilst this is perhaps the least problematic and controversial solution, my inner Bible geek had hoped for something more creative and interesting here.

    But that's just me, and probably shouldn't be taken too seriously. You see whilst Mark did lose out in that initial balloon debate, over time, it's gradually become my favourite. Indeed, in my estimation, it's even overtaken the gospel attributed to my namesake Matthew. I appreciate the way that Mark is less varnished than Matthew and Luke (both of whom took it and amended it for their particular purposes). I value its breathless, hurried, style. I enjoy its many mysteries such as the ambiguous, possibly lost, ending.

    Whilst Lumo's Gospel of Mark isn't primarily aimed at Mark-geeks like me, it does do a good job of bringing many of those aspects to the screen and like the other entries in the series is generally well put together. It may be the last of the gospels to make it onto film, but it's certainly one of the strong attempts at this kind of word for word adaptation.


    Monday, March 27, 2017

    La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906)

    I'm reviewing this film as part of the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon (though I've been meaning to do so for some time). The film is available as part of the Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913) box set from Kino Lorber or if you're naughty/skint like me you can see it on YouTube.

    Alice Guy1 is famed for being cinema's first female director and producer, having a hand in around 1000 films beginning with her directorial debut La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. Having revolutionised the infant industry in her native France she moved to America and set up a studio, but not before creating her film on the life of Jesus La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, Life and Death of Christ, 1906). From a technical angle it's shot in a similar tableau style as Pathé's 1905 and 1907 films La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ).2

    The Pathé film was down to Guy's friend and rival Ferdinand Zecca. Indeed two years before the release of this film Guy found Zecca selling soap on a street corner having been seen as surplus to requirements at Pathé (McMahan:2009, 125). Guy hired him instead, leaked the news to Pathé who reinstated Zecca and he then proceeded to re-work La Vie et La Passion de Jesus-Christ. It's an anecdote typical of Guy who was not only a pioneer in the film of cinema, but also a mentor who possessed the canny knack of spotting talent and developing it. In addition to Zecca she also gave a hand up the ladder to Victorin Jasset (although he was fired during the making of this film), Lois Weber, Louis Feuillade and her future husband Herbert Blaché all of whom would go on to great success (McMahan:2009, 125-126).

    As filmmakers though Guy and Zecca could not be more different, at least within the limitations of the tableau approach that so typifies films from cinemas first decade and a half. Zecca's film is far more theatrical, his actors perform in a manner that is often seen as over the top. The use of stencil colour also adds to this flashy style.3

    Guy however is far more subtle and nuanced. Her actors are far more naturalistic and the film lacks the grand, showy gestures of Zecca's film. It's often thought that the style of acting found in Zecca's film is deliberate and typical of the era. What isn't given sufficient consideration, in my opinion, is the fact that many of those who appeared on screen at this time were simply not very good actors. At this stage in the development of cinema it was still very much theatre's poor relation. The best actors appeared on stage rather than on screen and the theatre was a far more lucrative source of income for those with talent. In this context then, Guy's ability to both see the need for, and manage to produce this kind of more natural and realistic types of performance is critical, and far more fitting, I would argue, for her subject matter. "Guy's work is more modest, but more deeply felt." (Williams, p.40)

    This noticeably more humble aesthetic did not prevent Mademoiselle Alice from using camera tricks. There are a number of uses of double exposure, or cuts allowing angels to suddenly appear on screen. In fact such angelic visitations happen five times throughout the film (not including the charming original intertitles), most notably in the, extra-biblical, scene above where they guard the sleeping baby Jesus when Mary pops inside for a moment. Notice too the simplicity of the angel's costumes in that shot contrasting with Zecca's elaborate halos.

    But Guy was very much an innovator. Whilst she was not quite the first director of drama (the very first films were effectively documentaries) she was certainly one of the first, persuading her boss Leon Gaumont to let her make La Fée in her own time. As Gaumont's Nicolas Seydoux has put it "She told her boss that making movies was the best way to sell his equipment" (Simon: Preface, xv). At the time Guy was only employed as his office manager. having witnessed her success Gaumont freed up Guy to produce more films. When he invented the Chronophone (an early system that synchronised sound with moving images) she produced the 'photoscènes' that showcased it. Guy later moved to the US with her husband and the two set up their own studio, Solax, one of the first to move away from New York.

    This entrepreneurial thirst for innovation can be seen in the way Guy uses the camera in the film. Camerawork was still very much point-and-shoot, but this films showcases a number of developments in that respect. Firstly, I recently read David Bordwell's post "Anybody but Griffith". Whilst he describes how during 1908-1920 the move towards editing began to predominate, he argues that "the tableau strategy developed into a powerful expressive resource which "offered rich creative choices to filmmakers" (Bordwell). Bordwell highlights shots from a number of films from the 1910s that suggest that directors using the tableau style were doing more sometimes doing far more than just plonking down the cameras in front of what was effectively a theatre stage and letting the scene play out, but that this was a creative choice.

    One of the key things Bordwell focuses on is various times where the "shot makes sense from only a very limited number of points" and he cites various examples from 1910. Yet this approach is found various times in Guy's film. The most notable example is in the scene where Peter denies knowing Jesus (see image below). Like many of the scenes in the film it is inspired by James Tissot's illustrations of biblical scenes, though whilst they owe something to Tissot, by no means does she merely slavishly reproduce his work in moving form. Here the architecture of the scene owes more to Tissot's second denial of Peter whilst the sense of action belongs more to Tissot's third denial.

    It's clear however that whilst Guy is inspired by them she also creates something of her own that is more cinematic. When the shot begins Jesus is absent and the focus is on Peter. At the end of the shot Jesus walks along behind the scenery and perpendicular to the camera line. As he does he appears in two places where there is no wall, stopping on the second occasion to look back at Peter. Like the scenes Bordwell discusses, this shot would not work for many viewers in a theatre. It works here by using the composition, and the audience's prior knowledge of the subject to draw their attention to the place where Guy wants to focus their attention.

    There are several other shots like this in the film such as "The Arrival of the Magi" where the camera can see the infant Jesus for almost the whole time, but very few people would be able to see him were the same scene reproduced live in an auditorium, and "The Samaritan" where the audience is pre-warned as to the disciples arrival in a similar fashion to the denial scene.

    Another way in which Guy develops the tableau style is by filming various scenes from more interesting angles. For example the Last Supper. Whilst the vast major of artistic presentations of this subject have simply captured it with table in the centre of the frame and square-on, Guy films it from an oblique angle, and therefore is able to make Judas's early departure all the more obvious for the audience.

    Thirdly, there is a panning shot as Jesus is brought before Caiaphas. It's slight, but still relatively rare for the period. More striking in this respect is the scene "Climbing Golgotha" which begins partway up the hill looking down at the crowd accompanying Jesus to his execution as they snake up the hillside. But as Jesus himself is about to file past the camera it pans left and upwards to view Jesus and the rest of the procession from the rear. Again Guy could have chosen to insert a cut here, but her panning of the camera is a deliberate choice to keep all of the action within the same shot

    Most impressive in this respect is a three shot sequence involving a degree of continuity editing. The first "Jesus Before Pontius Pilate" shows Jesus before Pilate, shot from an angle to Pilate's seat of power. Not only does Guy's blocking move both characters around all of the space, but as the shot ends Jesus is taken out of the rear of the shot, more-or-less along the camera line and seemingly down some steps, but Pilate exits to the back and stage right.

    The next shot, "The Torment" shows both men arriving at their destinations, Jesus at his whipping post and Pilate at the balcony that overlooks it. Whilst the camera has dropped a floor to be on the same level as Jesus, there's no mistaking that we are seeing the back of the previous shot, filmed from the opposite angle. It's an attempt at continuity in the form of "something close to a reverse-angle shift" although the flow is rather disrupted by the intertitle that introduces the new scene (Abel, p.166).

    The third shot, "Ecce Homo", is again looking up at Pilate's balcony, but this time the camera is filming from a fresh angle, straight on as opposed to the previous angled shot. The main reason that the three shots here and the "Climbing Golgotha" shot are possible is because much of the production was filmed on location. Again this gives the film a more natural film in contrast to Zecca's edifices, but it also means the terrain is far more interesting than what could be shot on the flat floor of a studio.

    The most celebrated of this film's innovations is the mid-shot of St Veronica that appears as Jesus is dragged along the road to Golgotha. Veronica wipes his face and then Guy cuts to the mid-shot of her displaying a likeness of Jesus's face on her cloth. As David Shepherd points out as this shot is immediately preceded by an unnamed woman kneeling in front of the cloth and gazing upon it this essentially becomes cinema's first point-of-view shot (Shepherd, 73).

    Shepherd also notes how the white sheet Veronica uses to show her viewers an image of Christ evokes the cinema screen that Guy is using to display her image of Christ to her viewers (p.73). The fact that the observers of Veronica's image are predominantly female is just one of many suggestions that this film was made with a female audience in mind.

    Certainly it is the most female focused of all the major Jesus films. This starts with the emphasis on the birth scenes, noticeably on Mary, including the scene described above where angels care for Jesus to keep him safe whilst she finds some respite. Most notably, as my scene guide demonstrates, the only three scenes included from Jesus' ministry all feature women prominently, the woman at the well (here just titled "The Samaritan"), the raising of Jairus's daughter and the washing of Jesus' feet. "The scene in which Peter denies Jesus focuses on the women around the disciple as much as on him." (Abel, p.166) When Jesus falls on the Via Dolorossa it is "six women coming to Jesus' aid", rather than Simon of Cyrene (Hebron, p.546). Naturally, the scenes of women witnessing Jesus' resurrection feature heavily in the film's closing scenes.

    It's disappointing that 111 years later, and all the gains in equality that have been won in that time, that no subsequent filmmaker has yet matched Guy's vision of a Jesus who had women right at the heart of his ministry. Many more recent films have sought to include women at the Last Supper, and highlighted their presence at the resurrection, but all too often this seems like window dressing rather than something akin to Guy's core conviction that women were so central to Jesus' plans. But then few people saw the things in such a remarkable way as Alice Guy. I'm grateful to those who have championed her achievements and helped us see a little of more of how she saw the world.

    1 - Whilst after her marriage to Herbert Blaché she became known as Alice Blaché and then after their subsequent divorce, Alice Guy Blaché, at the time of making this film she was unmarried and simply known as Alice Guy. Therefore I have chosen to use this name throughout.
    2 - Contrary to what it says on the case, this is the version that has been available on DVD for many years (along with From the Manger to the Cross). One day I'll get around to summarising the evidence for that, but you can find out for yourself in Shepherd et al, "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"
    3 - For a longer comparison see Friesen pp.87-94

    - Abel, Richard (1994) "The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914", Berkeley: University of California Press.
    - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. (2016) 'La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    - Bordwell, David (2017) "Anybody but Griffith" http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2017/02/27/anybody-but-griffith/ retreived 24th March 2017.
    - Friesen, Dwight H. (2016) 'La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1907): The Preservation and Transformation of Zecca's Passion' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.158-178
    - Hebron, Carol A. (2016), 'Alice Guy Blaché and Gene Gauntier: Bringing New Perspectives to Film', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), "The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film", vol. 2, 543-55, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
    - McMahan, Alison, (2009) "James Tissot and Alice Guy Blaché" - http://www.aliceguyblache.com/news/james-tissot-and-alice-guy-blache retrieved 25/3/2017
    - McMahan, Alison, (2009)'Key Events and Dates: Alice Guy Blaché' pp.124-131 in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Shepherd, David J. (2016) 'La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (Gaumont, 1906): The Gospel According to Alice Guy' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.60-77
    - Simon, Joan, (2009) 'The Great Adventure: Alice Guy Blaché, Cinema Pioneer' pp.1-32 in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Simon, Joan, (2009) 'Preface' pp.xi-xx in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Williams, Alan (2009) "The Sage Femme of Early Cinema" in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press , 2009

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    Monday, March 20, 2017

    Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon

    This weekend I'll be taking part in the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon. It's hosted by Fritzi Kramer's site Movies Silently.

    I'll be reviewing Alice Guy's La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) which I wrote a scene guide for back in June last year.

    If you'd like to join in then it's not too late - just add your idea for a post in the comments on this post.


    Sunday, March 12, 2017

    The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 2 - Defining Attributes

    This is the third in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
    In my last post in this series I was looking at the criteria that various scholars have come up with to help classify the biblical epic. In this post I'm going to draw up my own "list" before going on, in the next post, to explain why this approach isn't really particularly useful. Given that, then, this post might be a rough around the edges. Anyway here are a few characteristics that tend to be present in almost all of the Biblical Epics.

    Adapting a Biblical Narrative
    This one is so obvious that I almost just left a sarcastic remark, but I do think a few points are worth making here. Firstly, that this is by no means the sole qualification. There is more to a biblical epic than it being based on one of the biblical narratives. It follows then, that not all Bible films let alone all 'biblical films' are Biblical Epics. Jesus of Montreal (1989) is clearly a biblical film, but no-one would classify it as an epic.

    At the other end of the scale there's also the question of how much biblical content is required to classify an epic as 'biblical'. My own definition is that it should be a dramatisation of one or more characters who appear in the biblical narratives. At the thin end of the wedge this would include The Silver Chalice (1954), but exclude Spartacus despite the prologue's attempts to link to the story of Jesus.

    The Moral Victory
    It seems to me that one aspect of the Biblical Epic that sets it apart as a genre from other sub-genres of Historical Epics is the inevitable moral victory. Sometimes this coincides with a more quantifiable victory as in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Samson and Delilah (1949), but oftentimes the hero may lose in the eyes of "the world" but from a moral, or indeed a historical, point of view they are a winner. Such examples include The Robe (1953) where in the final moments Marcellus completes his moral transformation, but is sent for execution; nearly all of the Jesus films where Jesus is executed, but stays true to his cause; and David and Bathsheba (1951) where David ends the film significantly weakened in the eyes of his people, but nevertheless restored in the eyes of God. This perhaps reflects Michael Wood's point that the true hero of these films is God rather than his human agency. Ultimately, no matter how things turn out for the film's protagonists, the audience knows from its historically-privileged position that they are on the side that will prove to be victorious in the long run.

    The 'Moral Victory' theme can also be read as a response to the nihilistic pessimism of Film Noir, a genre where the leading characters are frequently unwilling or unable to make the right choices and where the pull towards wrong is, at times, seemingly inescapable. In Biblical Epics 'good' always pulls through, with the leading characters, at least making the 'right' moral choices.

    Analogy and shared pasts
    Closely linked to the above is the manner in which biblical epics seek to draw analogies with the modern day, either representing the events of that day in such a way to draw parallels with this day or suggesting the roots of Israel have much in common with the shared past of America. Whilst the famous example of the former is the presence of cold war themes in The Ten Commandments (1956), this film is also an example of the latter as the Israelites leaving Egypt is narrated in terms that would not be out of place accompanying the story of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving to found America. Another common example is the suggestion that Israel then and America now have both lost their way and need to turn back to God before disaster strikes. The message is that just as doing right in the ages depicted lead to a better future (which vindicated their actions in their 'present') if modern day Americans will make the right choices then they too will be on the right side of history.

    Sex/no sex
    One of the most common ways these films attempt illustrate the lack of godliness is in many characters' more liberal attitude to sex, often, um, climaxing in an orgy scene. This trait is most distinct in the 50s epics due to the curious relationship the epics had with the production code. One the one hand the code was more lenient with the Biblical Epics than with any other genre. Their view seems to have been that the amount of flesh on display, the portrayal of orgies and the loose morals of many of the characters is tempered by both the films' moral message and their historical verisimilitude. On the other hand however the code did prevent the films from depicting any actual sex. Participants in the orgies kept their underwear on and the leading characters never really got to consummate their love. Add to this, of course, the fact that in all of the Jesus epics (bar Last Temptation and many of the other epics the central character is seemingly celibate. In this way, then, there is a paradox between the promise of movie sex - a promise the films' marketing teams were all to happy to use to aid promotion - and the amount that actually occurred. In essence, in the Biblical Epics, sex is something that happens to other people. Even in Solomon and Sheba (1959) the two leads' attempt to sneak off to a quiet spot in the middle of the orgy to try and consummate their relationship is foiled by God destructing his own temple to prevent them.

    There is an incredible earnestness about Biblical Epics. Whether it's the tone of the narrator's voice, or written into the characters faces, these films seemingly take themselves incredibly seriously. It is perhaps the main reason why the genre is so ripe for parody by those no longer held by its spell.

    It can be argued that humour, or it's absence, is one of the aspects of a genre that is most embedded, but also most overlooked. Take, for example all the action movies where the hero makes a "pun" after he has just killed an opponent. In the cold light of day this would seem an unlikely response, but it's a way of reminding the audience that this character is simultaneously both like them and not like them. In Biblical Epics seemingly the opposite is true. Aside from the occasional wry comment, usually by one of the campier characters the majority of the audience is unlikely to identify with, the genre is extremely self-serious. Consider the puns James Bond would have made on witnessing just one of the ten plagues of Egypt, for example. The fact that there is very little joking around or attempts at humour is a mechanism for reminding the audience, lest they forget, of the extreme importance of the events they are witnessing. These are not mere stories, they intended to be earth-shattering events of huge significance.

    Even the Roman-Christian epics, where the nature of the films and their heroes is closest to the action movie, lack this sense of humour. Strangely, then, the two recent epics that have attempted to inject some humour by their leading characters have both been Jesus films. As with the action films the humour in both Jesus (1999) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) signifies that the character, in this case Jesus, is both like and unlike the audience. On the one hand he likes a water fight, or to share a laugh about a kitchen table (Emphasising Jesus's humanity), but at the same time these happen in-between extreme incidents that emphasise Jesus' otherness (his divinity). Perhaps this breaking of genre codes explains my own reaction to these attempts at humour. To me they simultaneous feel both like a brief breath of fresh air yet rather awkward and our-of-place.

    The other kind of self-seriousness these films exhibit is almost a kind of opposite. Critics of the genre in general, or a specific film in general frequently cite terrible, "corny" lines of dialogue. Usually the question they ask is "How can anyone say that with a straight face?". "How?" indeed. The answer again seems to be that these overblown, overly earnest lines, are again examples where normal reactions ought to be suspended. These are not just stories, the filmmakers are at pains to remind us, they are accounts about the very birth of civilisation/salvation.

    Linked to the above point about corny dialogue, and that about the characters that are permitted to make humorous comments is the fact that another of the key distinctives of many Biblical Epics is camp. This is very much at the foremost of my mind at the moment as I'm reading Richard Lindsay's "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". Lindsay cites Susan Sontag's descriptions of camp as "Failed seriousness" (p.xxix) and the "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration" (p.xxx) before adding something Sontage excludes, namely that camp "is often specifically queer, but it need not be exclusively queer" (p.xxxi, emphasis his). Ultimately he agrees with Philip Core's definition of "camp as an expression of what is simultaneously hidden and revealed about the personality"(p.xxx).

    Even to those unfamiliar with academic definitions of camp, it is fairly plain that it is a feature of most of the major Biblical Epics from Mary Magdalene's zebra-powered chariot in The King of Kings, to Jay Robinson's portrayal of Caligula in The Robe to the underlying scorned-lover motivation behind Boyd's depiction of Messala in Ben-Hur, through to Richard Gere dancing in his underpants in 1985's King David. But it's even present in The Passion of the Christ a point that is, at first, surprising and then rather obvious. As Lindsay puts it "The androgynous Satan figure and the gay Herod figure suggest the kind of decadent society that would put the Son of God to death" (p.46).

    Indeed Biblical Epics are not just about the existence of camp, but usually camp of the kind of wrong in the world which, one way or another, God is intent on rectifying. Thus ultimately Magdalene covers up her gold bikini, the smug sneer is wiped of Caligula's face and Satan descends into hell; camp orgies are terminated by "acts of God" such as earthquakes and lightning and huge pagan temples and idols crumble into the dust. It's a mark against the genre that the 'more-godly' world at the end of these films is usually one that is more heterosexual.

    Closely linked to the above is the degree and the sense of excess in the Biblical Epics. As Wood explains "(o)nly epics, I think, insist on our thinking so much about money while we are in the cinema. Every gesture, every set piece bespeaks fantastic excess." (p.169) However, this excess is not simply about good storytelling or attractive marketing it also serves to bolster the film's moral message. This is closely tied to the points made above about "Moral Victory" and "Camp". Often the epics' excess is a way of signifying decadence, or the might of the empire against which God's people are to stand against. However, perhaps, it receives its fullest expression in the large scale destruction that occurs at the end of many Biblical Epics. Wood again ((178-182):
    ...the idea of waste in these movies receives its fullest expression here...Here are costly sets, carefully built constructions, going up in smoke or toppling down in ruins, the very feats of engineering we have just been admiring are now thrown away. This is visible expense, like the crowd of extras, only more startling. This is money being burned...It is pure excess, a ritual expression of lack of need...Having all that cash to throw away is a sign of (apparent) financial health. But actually throwing it away is a sign of moral health, a sign that you are not hampered by your riches...I don't think this is a reaction against a past of puritan prescriptions. It is rather the oblique expression of a faith. Here is God's plenty...to save money or gasoline or energy is to doubt the profusion of Gods gifts...For many modern Americans worldly goods are so abundant that that it becomes a form of scandal to want to hang on to any of them for very long.
    Of course 'Excess' is not just linked to destruction in the Epics it's often used to underscore the supposed momentousness of the events that are being depicted. The moment of Exodus in both versions of The Ten Commandments, the Hallelujah Chorus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and the ark in the various epic adaptations of the Noah story.

    Divine Activity
    One of the key factors that distinguishes the Biblical Epics from other historical epics is the presence of divine intervention. This takes different forms in different films. Whilst Grace describes this as "the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm" (p.13) this varies depending on the type of story which is being adapted. As a description it best fits the Roman-Christian Epics where Peter sees a vision (Quo Vadis?), Marcellus is haunted (The Robe) and Miriam and Tirzah are healed (Ben-Hur). However, in the Old Testament Epics "nearness of the heavenly realm" seems a little cosy compared to the acts of judgement and destruction which typify God's decisive action in the film. In the Jesus films it is not so much about a connection to another "realm" as the presence of God made man and walking among mortals.

    What is striking is that whilst divine activity is far from unique amongst ancient writings, very few other historical epics (at least within the Hollywood tradition) include such incidents, without moving into the fantasy genre where the aspects of self-seriousness and contemporary resonance are also absent. To put it another way, only the only form of divine activity that Hollywood cinema takes seriously is that which affirms Judeo-Christian belief. More recently characters have been allowed to believe in other gods - there were mentions of the supernatural in the early twenty-first century epics Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004) - but in such cases their faith remains strictly a personal affair. The divine does not appear to have a decisive effect on the lives of mortals.


    Having said all of this, I'm no longer sure having lists of genre characteristics is particularly helpful. When I started researching this series of posts I was very much hoping to come up with a list of criteria that would more or less indicate which films were part of the genre and which weren't. However as I have looked into more I have learned that not only is such a process widely practised it is also rather problematic. The reason I went down this path in the first place is because two of the early pieces I read, many years ago now, did offer such list based classifications. The first was in the very first general film studies text I read, Warren Buckland's "Teach Yourself Film Studies" where the author briefly examines Film Noir and lists seven of Noir's main attributes.

    The second was in Gaye Ortiz and Clive Marsh's "Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction" which is now 20 years old and which has not dated as well as some of its contemporaries. The chapter in question was Robert Banks' "The Drama of Salvation in George Stevens's Shane" which started by listing the key characteristics of the Western. Both pieces very much caught my attention and have acted as doorways to discovering two genres that I have a real love for. Nevertheless, I've only read one subsequent piece of scholarship on these genres that attempts genre classification by list, and crucially I was not able to rediscover it to mention it here.

    Anyway, this approach is not generally favoured by most authors on genre studies. One of the main reasons for this is that such lists are inevitably part of a self-fulfilling circle. If I define a genre, I do so with reference to a particular list of films that qualify for that genre, but if I start with a list of films and seek to draw out their shared characteristics then the question arises as to on what basis these particular films were selected in the first place. There's more I could say on this, but for a footnote this has already gone on quite a lot and I should probably press on and wrap it up.

    - Banks, Robert (1997) “The Drama of Salvation in George Stevens’s Shane,” in Explorations in Theology and Film, Marsh & Ortiz (eds.), Oxford: Blackwell, 59-65
    - Buckland, Warren (1998) "Teach Yourself Film Studies", London: Hodder & Stoughton.
    - Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film:Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press


    Friday, March 10, 2017

    Day of Triumph (1954)

    Day of Triumph's claim to fame in the pantheon of Jesus films is often misreported, but essentially it's this: it was the sound era's first American film about the life of Jesus to appear in cinemas. Between it's release in December 1954 and the previous major Hollywood Jesus film, The King of Kings (1927) there were Jesus films from other countries, such as Golgotha (1935) and El Mártir del Calvario (1952); films in which Jesus featured around the margins of the main story, such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and The Robe (1953); and even American Jesus films that played in smaller venues like churches or on TV, such as No Greater Power (1942) and 1951's Hill Number One. So whilst things are a little less clear-cut than is sometimes imagined, Day of Triumph's role is certainly a significant film and a forefather to the many American Jesus films that would follow in its wake.

    What's surprising on watching the film again, after a great many years, is how well it tackles some of the issues latter Jesus movies have grappled with. Like many Jesus films there were accusations of anti-Semitism in the run up to its release, which apparently "made many theatre owners reluctant to book the movie".1 The film does have a few problematic elements in this respect. Judas, for example, is depicted with arched eyebrows and a devilish beard and is shown to be both overly ambitious and scheming ("I'll begin to offer casual suggestions on important matters, later I'll advise on more vital affairs."). Ultimately it's over-confidence and hubris that lead to his downfall. Yet at the same time, in other ways it is a sympathetic portrayal of Judas. He has strengths as well as his eventual weaknesses: he is eloquent and visionary, delivering the film's best dialogue in a scene affirming Jesus' humanity; his betrayal of Jesus is not in the least motivated by the money, but out of a desire to see Jesus elevated to Judah's king; and he is played with great sympathy by James Griffith such that ultimately it is Judas that is the character the audience is left rooting for. It's perhaps the most intimate and fleshed-out portrayal of Judas yet captured on film. It doesn't milk his suicide, unsensationally keeping it off camera. Had it, no doubt it would have detracted to a certain degree, from the film's "happy" ending.

    The film attempts to try and present the historical and religious context of the film in a fair light. Various characters, including Jesus, are called by their father's names (e.g. Jesus bar Joseph), the Zealots - who here appear on very good terms with numerous disciples - are unmistakably Jewish, not least because they wear skull caps and pray. These key plot elements here were reproduced in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) - a zealot party divided between those backing Jesus and those supporting Barabbas, ultimately betraying the former in favour of the latter, to Judas' heartbreak - but whereas Ray's film largely secularises the zealots, here they belong, and are very much motivated by the Jewish faith.

    Historically speaking whilst the film still implicates Caiaphas and Annas, their actions are largely isolated from the general populace and Arthur T. Horman's script has them make it clear that only Pilate has the power to execute Jesus. Pilate himself is portrayed as being cunning and sly, deliberately trying to make the priests appear culpable. When it's suggested that Pilate might consult the people, it's the priests that instruct their servants to go and assemble a group of their supporters to deliberately influence the vote. The zealots infiltrate the crowd as well, of course, unusually with Judas still amongst their number. By this stage, however, whilst he is still with them in person, in spirit they have rejected his vision and switched their alliances to Barabbas. When Judas, seemingly alone in such a biased crowd, continues to call for the release of his master, he is struck on the head and knocked out by one of his fellow zealots who prefers Barabbas to the "weeping" Jesus. It's the last time Judas is seen in the film.

    The strength of the portrayal of Judas, the fact that it is supposed to be a film about Jesus, and the presence of two major stars (Lee Cobb who plays Zadok and Joanne Dru's Mary Magdalene), does give the film something of a problem, namely that it's a little unclear who the film is actually about. At the time of filming, it was Dru that was the film's biggest star, having had the leading female roles in 1948's Red River and the following year's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, though her appearance is only brief. Interestingly, Dru's Magdalene is never specifically identified as a prostitute, indeed the film portrays her as a woman of some means - an assertion that there is at least some evidence to support.

    As Zadok, Cobb (whose performance in On the Waterfront earlier that same year had propelled him to stardom) features far more prominently. Indeed in some ways the film is more about Zadok, and his path to faith, than it is about Jesus. As the most prominent of the various 'narrators' in the film, it is primarily through Zadok's eyes, or at least those of someone alongside him, that we watch the events of the film unfold. Jesus is the Amadeus to Zadok's Salieri. Zadok is a relatively neutral presence amongst the disciples and zealots who intermingle throughout the film repeatedly asking the various characters what news they have in order to gain updates about the latest developments. In addition to Judas the political schemer he also maintains a good relationship with Barabbas and his supporters (militant firebrands), Simon (the former zealot, who has now opted for Jesus's peaceful path) and, unusually, Andrew who is seemingly linked to both the zealots and the disciples. It's a device that means that Zadok, and by extension, therefore, the viewer get to hear about and ultimately witness the resurrection, in the scene that top and tails the rest of the film.

    What, then of the film's depiction of Jesus? In many ways the film's most radical statement about Jesus was its decision to show his face. It's true that the film's producer/writer/director team of James K. Friedrich, Arthur T. Horman and John T. Coyle had already produced a series of short films (The Living Christ series, 1951) featuring the same actor, Robert Wilson, as Jesus, as well as a longer film for church use I Beheld His Glory (1952). But this was the first time since the introduction of the Hays Code that Jesus had appeared in US cinemas.

    Having waited 27 years the filmmakers waste no time in revealing the face of Jesus. In a teaser shot, before even the credits we see Jesus in close-up, shot from below against a rich blue sky (top). It forms an interesting contrast with the long wait before Jesus' appearance in The King of Kings (1927) and his hidden performance in the previous year's The Robe. It also anticipates similar shots in Ray's King of Kings that would be released 7 years later in 1961. This appearance before the credits role is also somewhat reminiscent of the start of John's Gospel, a reminder of Jesus' preeminence, his existence before the beginning of the world/the film.

    Within the main body of the film, Jesus' first appearance is also interesting. Jesus appears behind a drying fishing net which in effect places a veil between him and the audience. It is a veil that is soon to be torn down to reveal the face of God made flesh. Indeed the concept of a fully human Christ, one who fully partakes in human experience is close to the heart of the film's portrayal of Jesus. In the speech alluded to above Judas describes the man he is following in the most sold and physical terms:
    I've lived travelled eaten and slept with Jesus bar Joseph for more than two years and I've studied him more closely than any man. He's learnéd, but he's human; mortal, flesh and blood, just like you and me. When briars scratch his legs, he bleeds. When the day is hot he thirsts. He hungers, he sweats, he tires, he laughs, he cries. Would God or the son of God have such weaknesses?

    This conversation (between Judas and Zadok) is just one of many behind-the-scenes musings about who Jesus is and how he might be used to forward various individuals' differing agendas; they are left frustrated by his refusal to conform to the patterns of behaviour they expect of him. When he enters Jerusalem, swept along on a wave of euphoria and seemingly well poised to declare himself king, he stops at the temple, weeps and disappears from sight. The music shift in tone at this point from typical epic pomp to something more nightmarish. This is the music of Judas' perspective as his plan for Jesus fails just when it was set to succeed. Whilst Judas insists it could all happen again the zealots decide Jesus is not going to fulfil the role they had hoped and turn their attention to the urgent task of freeing the captured Barabbas.

    This kind of speculation and dramatic license was a significant shift away from Friedrich and Coyle's earlier work on The Living Christ series, perhaps due to the introduction of Irving Pichel as director. Not only does the film include a far more varied and meaningful range of music in the film and a far more interesting use of the camera, but it is also liberated from the kind of slavish keeping to the text that made Living Christ good for Sunday schools but ultimately unsuitable for cinemas.

    Having said that, in places the film's dramatic additions give it a few structural problems. Major characters such as Mary Magdalene appear prominently only to retreat to obscurity, their role reduced to little more than an opportunity to get Jesus to say or do a particular thing. More pointedly, the film seems to have three or four different beginnings and almost as many natural endings. Yet this weakness doesn't detract too greatly from the film's many strengths

    1 - https://www.movieguide.org/news-articles/revival-of-distinguished-1954-classic-film-day-of-triumph.html