Saturday, February 23, 2013

One of the ways in which we interact with the Bible is through film and this is not a new undertaking for filmmakers. As Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), edited by Adele Reinhartz, demonstrates, filmmakers have been making biblical films almost from the beginning of the movie industry. This is one of the compelling aspects of this book: it reviews films dating back to Life of Moses (1909-1910) and up to A Serious Man (2009), with every decade in between represented. It is also a difficult book to assess as it is not always clear on what basis films have been chosen for review or how one is to understand the book as a whole.

Reinhartz writes in her Introduction that “this book presents fifty essays on fifty movies in which the Bible or aspects thereof figure in significant ways. Its goal is simple: to enhance our understanding and appreciation of film by looking at a broad range of examples in which one particular staple of the full-length feature film – the Bible –plays a significant role” (xvi). This it does well, with films ranging from Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Sling Blade (1996) to The Prince of Egypt (1998), Frankenstein (1931) to Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). What is a strength, though, is also a weakness, as there is no real sense throughout the book of what makes these films “key.”

Reinhartz acknowledges the difficulties in choosing films “from a large and diverse cinematic corpus that spans approximately 115 years and counting” (xvi), but says she was guided by “the intended audience,” who comprise a wide range of groups, such as “general readers who are interested in film, the Bible or both,” students in courses on the Bible and film, or adult education instructors (xvi). She also mentions general principles that guided the selection: availability; breadth; and variety of types of films. All of these principles are on display in the book, but it is not a “canon” as she honestly states, since whole genres of films are omitted, such as “horror films, exorcism films, vampire films – that may include the use of the Bible but which I cannot bring myself to watch” (xvii). That is a shame, actually, as many of these films can be terrifically bad, but some are superb and have much to say about the Bible and its use in these genres. It also has something to say about the people who watch these movies in the millions, but these films remain unexplored. Given that 37 reviewers examined the 50 films, it seems possible that one or two of them might have wanted to explore the fascination with vampire or exorcism films.  

By making the criteria so broad and diverse, it does allow the net to be cast wide, but also defers from any sort of decision on what films are most significant or important among biblical movies (a category which includes both overtly biblical films -"The Bible on Film," x- and those films which deal with the Bible more obliquely or symbolically -"The Bible in Film," x).  What makes a film “key”? It would be nice to know, for instance, why certain films were excluded, apart from there being not enough space or not liking a certain genre. Perhaps it is ultimately personal preference, but it would have been terrific to see a John Woo film and the biblical imagery of his Hong Kong films such as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow or Hardboiled examined. Recent popular films such The Lord of the Rings or The Narnia Chronicles have attracted numerous viewers to films soaked in explicit and implicit biblical imagery.  Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films are represented – Bladerunner (1982) and Children of Men (2006) – and while the two included are superb films, what made them more worthy of inclusion than, for instance, The Road Warrior or The Road? This sort of questioning, of course, can devolve into a stance of “why do you not like what I like?,” but I think this could be avoided by an even clearer set of criteria over what made a film noteworthy for inclusion.

 Nevertheless, when we get to the actual reviews of the films, they are superb. Each review also ends with a short bibliography for further reading, which is helpful. Reinhartz writes that “there was no attempt to impose uniformity of approach or focus among the fifty essays included here, beyond the simple and obvious request that each essay address explicitly the film’s use of the Bible” (xvii). This approach allows each author to flex their biblical muscles and many of the reviews offer fascinating insights. Let me name a few of my favorites. Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch’s review of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) offers an insightful review of the film in light of the Genesis creation accounts. S.D. Giere’s take on Babette’s Feast (1987) does not overlook the Eucharistic themes of the film, but focuses on the means by which the beauty of the world is made apparent to the pietistic Danish church members who have been at war with this beauty their whole lives. Arnfridur Gudmundsdottir challenges the common readings of Breaking the Waves (1996), which see the main character Bess as a Christ-figure, stating bluntly “Bess ends up as a victim of violence, betrayed by her husband, her community and, ultimately, also by God” (54). It is a powerful and convincing reading of the film. Finally, Jeffrey L. Staley’s appraisal of the 1912 film From Manger to Cross in light of Victorian understandings of Jesus makes me want to see this film and see it now. It also opened my eyes to a curious oversight in many Jesus films: “notably, there is no Easter morning scene at an empty tomb” (103). He notes that this is the case in numerous other Jesus films, such as Godspell (1973), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Jesus of Montreal (1989), and Son of Man (2006).

Whatever my reservations about how the films for the book were chosen, it has to be said that the majority of the films chosen are worth seeing and the essays about the films perceptive and short, most 3-5 pages long, which is not always an easy combination to find. I could have mentioned many more essays in which fresh insights were brought to old films for me. It is highly recommended as a result for those who want to dip into films about the Bible or to explore biblical themes in movies which are not explicitly biblical. It might even be a perfect book to take up during Lent and to meditate on, for instance, why so many life of Jesus films do not find Easter itself worthy of reflection.It seems a significant oversight, yes?

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


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