Film review of “Ben-Hur”

September 11, 2016

(This film review of “Ben-Hur” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on September 1, 2016.)

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, based on the novel by Lewis Wallace; and starring Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Haluk Bilginer and Rodrigo Santoro.


Certain stories in film and literature can persist for decades, resonating in each retelling or remake.  So it is with the latest film version of “Ben-Hur”, the first biblical-style movie epic released since “Exodus – Gods and Kings” and “Noah” both premiered in 2014.

This “Ben-Hur” draws on an impressive historical pedigree, going back to the original 1880 novel, entitled “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, by Lewis Wallace, a former Civil War general.  This is the fifth screen adaptation of Wallace’s novel:  the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston in the lead role won 11 Academy Awards and remains the most vivid in the popular imagination.

This “Ben-Hur” tells the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Jack Huston (grandson of legendary film director John Huston and nephew of actress Angelica Huston), a “born to station” Jewish prince living in ancient Israel during the Roman occupation (“33 AD”).

Although a great horseman, Judah lives a soft life in an enormous villa with an extended family, having no apparent work to do other than racing his horses.  Judah has an adopted Roman brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), who has an identity crisis: while welcomed into the Ben-Hur household as a son, he also feels excluded because he is not Jewish.

After an incident where Messala is blamed for Judah’s near-fatal horse-riding accident, Messala runs off to join the Roman legions to fight in “Germania”.  Years later he returns to Jerusalem as a senior officer.  In the meantime, the “Zealots” have been causing trouble through guerrilla actions against the Romans.  Judah opposes this uprising, but faces a conflict.  He supports them as individuals but not as a political movement:  when asked by the now-Roman officer Messala to identify the Zealots, Judah replies, “I’m not going to name names”, a deliberate reference to the Communist witch-hunts in the USA in the 1950s and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”.

Judah’s support for an injured Zealot is his undoing, as the man who he shelters attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate, an act blamed on Judah.  This event results in the incarceration of the whole Ben-Hur household, with Judah sentenced to become a “galley slave”, rowing for years in the dank depths of a Roman warship.

Working from a script co-written by John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter”) provides some great action, but is less successful in developing the personal relationships that underpin the story and make us want to care about the characters.  These underdeveloped relationships may have resulted because of the film’s duration:  the three and a half hours of the Heston version is now cut down to two hours, but still needs to cover a lot of ground.

This latest version of “Ben-Hur” strives for authenticity, nicely shot in the ancient World Heritage centre of Matera in southern Italy, standing in for Jerusalem of Roman times, and the famed Cinecitta studios in Rome.  It’s no coincidence that Mel Gibson also filmed “The Passion of the Christ” here.

There are many pleasures in this “Ben-Hur”.  The film’s two major set-pieces, the naval battle and the famous chariot race near the end (where Judah and Messala face off), are thrillingly filmed using digital effects that were not available to earlier directors.  The addition of Morgan Freeman as a Nubian horse-racer is a total delight, bringing his authoritative personality, mellifluous voice and regal bearing: he has, of course, played both God and the President of the USA in previous films.

This “Ben-Hur” is more avowedly Christian than the Heston film, inserting more scenes of the Jesus figure than its 1959 predecessor, where Jesus’ face was never seen – a particularly effective technique to create mystery.  Although the majority of this “Ben-Hur” is straight action-adventure, Jewish viewers are warned: at its heart, “Ben-Hur” is a Christian film, drawing a number of scenes from the Christian Bible books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This latest “Ben-Hur” also does something new, consciously inserting imagery and action that compares the Roman occupation of ancient Israel with Nazi actions against the Jews.  Two scenes stand out.  At one point, Roman soldiers desecrate a Jewish graveyard for building materials, stones that we later see with faint Hebrew writing behind Pontius Pilate.  And most telling of all, after the attempt on Pontius Pilate’s life, the Romans execute 20 local Jews in retaliation.


A note on the history of “Ben-Hur”:  According to the US National Endowment for Humanities, Lewis Wallace’s novel was “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”.  For more than 50 years after publication in 1880, it outsold every book in the US except the Bible, until “Gone With the Wind” appeared in 1936; the English language version has never gone out of print. Aside from the 1959 film version with Charlton Heston directed by William Wyler, there have also been two silent film versions (1907 and 1925), as well as a 2003 animated version produced by Heston, who also voiced Judah Ben-Hur’s character.  There was also a very popular play in 1899 that even travelled to Sydney and Melbourne, a 2009 London stage version, and a 2010 British-produced TV mini-series.

(below: image for the promotion of a 1901 stage dramatised production of Ben-Hur)


film review of Spotlight

February 4, 2016

(This review appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 28 January 2016. Click here to view a copy of the Jewish News article.)

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D’Arcy James and Billy Crudup

There are many good reasons to see the new film “Spotlight”, which details the real-life events of how the “Boston Globe” newspaper reported on and “broke” the story of systematic Catholic clergy child abuse. It’s the best film about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men” dramatised the Watergate scandal. The superb cast – all portraying real-life characters – provides the best ensemble acting of any film in recent memory. And “Spotlight” is set in a time (2001 and 2002, spanning the events of September 11th) and a place (Boston) that grounds the film in a true historical reality, down to the thick and accurate Boston accents, and including a fabulous portrayal of a media world on the cusp of dramatic digital transformation.

“Spotlight” is the name of the “Boston Globe’s” investigative team, a group of fiercely independent journalists. In the middle of 2001, the “Globe” – then owned by the “The New York Times” – received its first editor who had not grown up locally: Marty Baron (played by Liev Schrieber), transferred by “The Times” from the “Miami Herald”, and subsequently named by “Esquire” magazine as the “best news editor of all time”. Baron was also the “Globe’s” first Jewish editor; he encouraged the Spotlight team to tackle the simmering child abuse scandal. With Catholics comprising more than half the paper’s readership – and the Spotlight team all “lapsed” Catholics themselves – it took the outsider, the Jewish guy, to force the issue, against both internal resistance and external opposition.

Baron wasn’t the only outsider on the case. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) had long represented numerous child abuse victims suing the Church. Garabedian’s character points out that as an Armenian, he is not part of Boston’s Catholic “power elite”, and thus able to challenge the status quo. In Boston, religion matters. A lot.

Although Baron and Garabedian played important roles in uncovering the scandal, the film concentrates on the work of the Spotlight team itself: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), team leader Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), and researchers Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), following them through their daily grind and the emotional journeys of slowly uncovering what turned out to be one of the biggest religious scandals in American history. No-one, including this team at first, could believe that the Church had systematically covered up and protected so many abusive priests. The team eventually published 600 stories about the abuse and the team received a Pulitzer Prize.

This is a “close” and intimate film, powerful and fast-paced, with an extraordinary attention to detail by writer/director Tom McCarthy. Not surprisingly, “Spotlight” has received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, editing, original script and acting for Ruffalo and McAdams. Aside from the realistic Boston settings, the sense of verisimilitude is enhanced by the cast: most of the Catholic characters are played by Catholics and Schrieber is Jewish.

This is another important reason to see “Spotlight”: as one of the most important contemporary dramatic films made about religion, it holds far-reaching significance for Australia. The film concludes with an on-screen listing of 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world-wide where sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light: 22 of the international locations are Australian, from Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney to Wollongong, with many in-between.

“Spotlight” also illustrates a major reason why the Catholic Church refused to take a principled stand against the antisemitic portrayal of Jews by Mel Gibson in his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”. According to a Boston priest with extensive interfaith Jewish experience who I interviewed in 2008, the Church’s authority was so weakened by the scandals depicted in “Spotlight” that the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops felt unable or unwilling to risk offending their constituencies by criticising a popular Hollywood film. The result: far greater success for Gibson’s film than it deserved.

Spotlight(photo above: the lead actors of the “Spotlight” team: from left – Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy James

Is Risen the New Passion of the Christ?

January 26, 2016

Is “Risen”, the new faith film about the aftermath of Jesus’ Resurrection, the new “The Passion of the Christ”? It’s being billed that way by those hoping to repeat “The Passion’s” great success. The answer is no, it’s not. Because if it were, you’d have heard about it already, in the way that “The Passion” had almost a year’s worth of marketing, publicity and – yes – controversy, prior to its release on 25 February 2004. “Risen” rises on 19 February 2016 both here in Australia and internationally. We can only assume the closeness of these two release dates – late February – is no coincidence.

From the Jewish perspective, the concern about any New Testament film is how Jews are portrayed. There is a long history of film’s showing a direct or implied guilt cast on the Jews for the death of Jesus, despite efforts of the Catholic Church from the 1965 Nostra Aetate onwards.

In a January 22, 2016 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Rich Paluso, Senior Vice President of Affirm, Sony’s faith-based production arm (which financed “Risen”), says of “Risen”:

They are intrigued by the story of what happened, the birth of Christianity and the fact that the infrastructure of Judea, both the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership and the Roman leadership were all about crushing this man and crushing His followers. So that automatically lends them credibility.

The official Sony website avoids references to “Jewish leadership”, describing this film as:

“Risen” is the epic Biblical story of the Resurrection, as told through the eyes of a non-believer. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a powerful Roman Military Tribune, and his aide Lucius (Tom Felton), are tasked with solving the mystery of what happened to Jesus in the weeks following the crucifixion, in order to disprove the rumours of a risen Messiah and prevent an uprising in Jerusalem.

“Risen” is directed and co-written by Kevin Reynolds, known for his collaborations with Kevin Costner (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), followed by a major falling out over “Waterworld”. This caused Reynolds famously to say, “”Kevin should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favourite actor and director”.

Trivia: Rich Paluso’s “three success habits” , according to an interview with The Door Post:

1. Always take notes.
2. Always return everyone’s phone call even if you don’t know them.
3. Always do what you say you are going to do.
(DP comment: good habits, those.)

(image from the film below)


Film review of Exodus – Gods and Kings

December 11, 2014

This film review of “Exodus – Gods and Kings” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 December 2014, with the title “Bible story on a grand scale”.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley

Biblical movies fall into two broad categories: those that stay close to the story and claim, “this is the way it was”, and those that adapt and take creative license. The new blockbuster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes the adaptation approach but tries not to stray far from the basic narrative.

Directed by Ridley Scott, whose credits range from “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to “The Good Wife” TV series, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a big picture, straining for epic greatness and to out-do its antecedents, particularly Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments”. The sets are lavish, the cast is large, the costumes are expensive and the action – when it comes (and there’s plenty) – is big, noisy and compelling: it’s a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Although not a great film – there are a number of flat parts and the depth of characterisation pales considerably in comparison to Scott’s “Gladiator” – most fans of the biblical narrative should be satisfied. As to whether or not the world now needs another big film re-telling of the story of the freeing of the Jews and the flight from Egypt, that’s a separate question. Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”, which reinterpreted that the flood as a parable for global warming, this new “Exodus” has little new to say about our modern world of belief.

As Moses, Christian Bale’s extraordinary performance anchors the film. While he’s an Anglo guy with light brown hair well-suited for middle American Christian audiences who like to see biblical heroes who look like them (think Charlton Heston), he’s also an actor who completely inhabits his roles. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who played “Irving Rosenfeld” with a “comb-over” in “American Hustle”, three Bruce Wayne/Batmans and the young boy in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”. From anguished emotion to warrior to impassioned leader, Bale carries the role with aplomb – and thus carries the film: a true 21st century Moses.

Australia’s own Joel Edgerton plays Ramses, who is rarely seen on-screen wearing anything other than yellow and gold clothing. It’s a strong performance, but in the match-up against Yul Brenner (DeMille’s 1956 Ramses), I go with Yul. Here there is also an odd throwback to “Gladiator”: Ramses frequently speaks of how he felt unloved by his father – possibly a clue to his brutality – and celebrates how his son can sleep well because he is loved. Remember Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator”? He’s as psychologically messed up as they come, and he reflects that his nephew can sleep well because he is loved. At this point, you wonder what issues director Scott is working on, or if he is simply saying that all powerful tyrants were unloved as children.

There are some jarring casting choices, proof that once actors develop an on-screen “persona”, it’s hard to escape. As the older Pharaoh (Seti I), John Turturro certainly looks the part (his Italian features easily “go Mediterranean”), but I had a hard time forgetting that it was Turturro, star of many urban American films. Similarly it’s hard to forget that it’s actually Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”, “Dave”) playing Tuya, although it seems that her scenes were cut and she is more heavily made up. A smirking Ben Mendelsohn (the nasty viceroy Hegep) comes off better, inhabiting the character with slimy ease.

The ten plagues are suitably impressive, as awe-inspiring as any on screen to date. I found myself saying the Hebrew name of each plague as it appeared: dam, tzefardaya, kinim, arove, dever, schin, barad … you get the idea. It’s a genuinely thrilling part of the film. Strangely, however, the film does not include any scene where Moses pleads with Pharaoh to let his people go, instead presenting the plagues as solely divinely inspired in which Moses had no say and therefore unable to use in negotiation.

I also missed the unleavened bread: when the Jews left Egypt quickly, wasn’t matza a big thing? You can tell that director Ridley Scott did not grow up with annual Passover seders, eating matza for eight days every year. If he did, surely he wouldn’t have been able to resist a short matza-baking scene.

“Exodus” handles the language well, always a great challenge with biblical films. The dialogue is rarely stilted, using a modern vernacular English that avoids slipping into 21st century idioms. There’s little didacticism, and almost no unnecessary speechifying, however those looking for direct biblical quotes – unlike the recent “Noah” – may be disappointed.

Director Scott solves the issue of accents (and it sure can be one) by having everyone speak with a mild British accent. It seems to work, giving a sense of formalism and “remove” to the language that American English never does. Strangely, the only actor who does not speak with a British accent is the one who most looks the part: Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Bithiah with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent; it’s a good sound, but as she’s the only one, it comes across as odd.

There are some fascinating interpretations: the Red Sea does not so much as “part” in two as it does “recede” to one side, as if prior to a tsunami. Most troubling, however, is the appearance of a small boy with a strong English accent (most accents are quite mild) as the “messenger” of God: how the Almighty speaks to Moses. This is a high degree of adaptation and interpretation, one that Christian audiences will probably be comfortable with, but very few Jews.

The film ends (only a minor spoiler here: we all know the plot, right?) with a loud whimper. Following a short scene where Moses chisels the Ten Commandments, we see him with long gray hair travelling in a cart. The implication is … what exactly? What about ending with the successful crossing of the Red Sea and drowning of the Egyptian armies? It’s more triumphant.


Film review of Gladiator

December 7, 2014

(This film review of Gladiator was originally published in the Australian Jewish News on 5 May 2000.  I am reprinting it now in “honour” of Scott’s new film Exodus: Gods and Kings – my review coming soon – and Russell Crowe’s upcoming The Water Diviner, due for release on 26 December 2014.)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Richard Harris

In movies, there is little need to invent new stories; re-use and adaptation are the name of the game. Back in 1880, Lew Wallace wrote a novel called Ben-Hur about a Jewish nobleman named Judah in Roman-occupied Israel around the time of Jesus. Unjustly accused of treason, he was sentenced to slavery in the galleys, and later made his way up to nobility again through his star chariot-racing in Rome. It was made into a blockbuster silent film in 1926 (with Ramon Navarro in the lead role), and re-made again in 1959 by William Wyler with Charlton Heston as Judah. Ben-Hur resonated strongly with Jewish audiences because the major theme was dual allegiances, one of the perennial issues facing Jews in foreign lands.

Ben-Hur, along with Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) were the obvious forerunners to the Roman epic Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Alien). Gladiator is based on an original story by writer David Franzoni (who wrote Spielberg’s Amistad), but all of the familiar elements are there: the outsider (in this case Russell Crowe playing Spanish-born Roman general Maximus) falls from grace through the political manipulations of the wily son (Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus) of emperor Marcus Aurelius (classic British actor Richard Harris). In doing so, his family is decimated, and he falls into slavery: in this case, becoming an arena gladiator for entrepreneur Proximo (the late Oliver Reed). Along the way, there is the hint of a past romance with Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). With the assistance of his loyal fellow gladiators – including Juba (Djimon Hounsou, who played the lead black character Cinque in Amistad) and maverick senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), Maximus attempts his vengeance.

It may sound a bit like I, Claudius, but in reality this is an action film with hyper-realistic battles (think Braveheart) and some truly astonishing arena fighting, with some of the most thrilling choreographed violence you will see this year. There is a cast of thousands, and the re-creation of Rome circa 180 CE has never been better; in other words, Gladiator is a major spectacle – don’t wait for the video release if you like seeing your heroic action big and loud.

Some of the performances are outstanding, notably Crowe (in his follow-up to his wimpy Insider character) as the brawny but smart hero and the classic supporting actors (Harris, Reed, Jacobi), but they are given pretty weak dialogue to work with. The film opens with an amazingly staged, bloody, dirty – and seemingly unending – battle scene, which is then followed by a lot of talky political intrigue. It’s an awfully long set-up, so emotionally the film only gets going about one-third of the way through when we really start to “feel” Maximus’ pain.

Part of the difficulty may be that Maximus the outsider is never given the same mythical and spiritual sense that the Jewish Judah had in Ben-Hur. Unlike the Jews under the Romans, he has no political objective other than simple survival. But as a (literally) bone-crunching story of survival, Gladiator – despite its faults – succeeds very well. Interesting to note that Gladiator came from DreamWorks, and was co-produced by Holocaust survivor Branko Lustig, who also co-produced Schindler’s List.

Gladiator poster

“The Prince of Egypt” film review

November 30, 2014

Next week, the new film “Exodus:  Gods and Kings” opens here in Australia.  In its honour, I re-print my review of the 1998 animated film “The Prince of Egypt”, which appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 24 December 1998.

Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells
Featuring the voices of Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart

It probably seemed a bit like a joke at the time: when Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks SKG partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen reportedly dared him to re-make “The Ten Commandments” as an animated film. You would need to think of yourself of the Cecil B. DeMille of our time, and have the chutzpah to consider actually personifying Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Tzipporah, Ramses and even portraying the voice of God. But Katzenberg did, and of such big dreams are big and memorable films made.

“The Prince of Egypt” tells the story of Moses and the Exodus, from the time of Moses as a small baby set adrift upon the Nile River until the moment of receiving the Ten Commandments – all of this in just over 90 minutes. What a challenge. The film-makers state openly that they have “adapted” and “interpreted” parts of the story; certainly their changes to the Biblical accounts are likely to sponsor critical debate for some years. The worry is that films like “The Prince of Egypt” (and its direct antecedent “The Ten Commandments”) – through the power and brilliance of the film-making – become the “real” history, implanted in popular imagination.

But what of “The Prince of Egypt” as a film? It is, quite simply, superior animation and technically stunning. It offers a new style and presentation of Pharoah’s Egypt – gargantuan, using shades of ochres and desert yellows – and is willing to be both “big” and little. The big is large indeed, with enormous monuments under construction and a truly majestic (and apparently very expensive) parting of the Red Sea. When it comes to current notions of what makes an animated film “work”, “The Prince of Egypt” is both daring and conservative: in mostly avoiding the “comic interlude” and flashy song and dance production number, the film’s “ha ha” and “break out” moments are strictly limited, and the real story is emphasised in a remarkably straightforward fashion. This makes it less likely to offend religious viewers, but is not the common wisdom of how to make money from a major film release.

Moses is voiced by an appropriately deep-voiced Val Kilmer, and his complex friendship and comradeship with “brother” Ramses (the voice of Ralph Fiennes) is one of the more unusual aspects of this film. This Ramses is not the one-dimensional villain he is often portrayed as. Sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) comes across, dare we say it, as a gutsy New York Jewish woman. Brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum, with his best snaky voice) is given some key psychological points to score on Moses, very unlike the Aaron in “The Ten Commandments”. Other voices include African-American actor Danny Glover as Jethro, the high priest of Midian and father of Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is drawn of distinctly dark skin; Patrick Stewart as the Pharaoh Seti; and Steve Martin and Martin Short as the Pharaoh’s court magicians. Ofra Haza – one of Israel’s most popular singers – sings Yocheved’s lullaby to Moses as he is put in a basket on the Nile.

“The Prince of Egypt” is dramatically compelling, but not a film for small children: there is much brutality and death in the story (so what else is new?). The plagues and the strong drama are handled with great subtlety and graphic cleverness, and the obsessive care put into its production is evident throughout. A fascinating experience.

(Below a theatrical poster from the film’s release, with an interesting “tag line” that reads, “The power is real, the story is forever, the time is now”.)

The Prince of Egypt poster

Biblical films in perspective – the new Exodus arrives in cinemas

November 30, 2014

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 November 2014 in a shorter form, under the title “Biblical blockbusters”.)

The biblical blockbuster film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” opens in Australian next week and in most of the rest of the world one week later. It’s likely to be the biggest biblical film in a decade – since 2004’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ”. “Exodus” (as it’s called, for short) comes from the hand of Ridley Scott, the great sci-fi and action director who has brought us “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Black Hawk Down” and “Robin Hood”. From the evidence of its promotional trailers, it seems likely to be what we expect: a biblical action movie with Moses (played by Christian Bale) as the new action hero.

Joining Bale (last seen on screen in the black comedy “American Hustle”) is Australia’s Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby”) as Rameses, along with John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass and Australia’s own Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep.

There’s no coincidence that Ridley Scott (who turns 77 on 30 November – clearly duelling with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood for the “oldest working director” award) directed “Exodus”. He also directed the Oscar-winning “Gladiator”, starring Russell Crowe, the most popular movie in Australian cinemas in 2000 and Scott’s most financially successful. Although not based on any biblical story, “Gladiator” is commonly agreed to have reinvented the modern “swords and sandals” epics, once so popular on the big screen. With “Gladiator”, Scott showed us that audiences were still hungry for “Roman fantasy”.

Unlike Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – about the final hours of Jesus – “Exodus” tells a story from the Tanach (the “Old Testament”), and does not seem to have been given active marketing to Christian groups. This may be because Scott has said that he would be “looking to natural causes” to explain the miracles – such as “tsunami drainage” for the Red Sea parting, and star Bale has been quoted as calling Moses “schizophrenic and barbaric”.

“Exodus” arrives hot on the heels of this year’s “Noah”, the darkly entertaining epic with Russell Crowe in the title role. Director Darren Aronofsky freely re-wrote the story of the biblical Noah, expanding it in a variety of ways to make a number of ecological and philosophical points that very few of us had seen in the original.

This year’s “Exodus” has a long series of movie predecessors. The most popular book in the world (the Bible) has arguably produced the most film adaptations, extending back to the early silent years of film, traceable back to 1897. But it was really Cecil B. DeMille who helped define biblical films, with work spanning both the silent and sound eras. His 1923 silent version of “The Ten Commandments” included notable special effects of the Red Sea parting and was followed by his life of Christ film “King of Kings” in 1927.

DeMille’s 1949 success with “Samson and Delilah” is credited with kicking off the 1950s “golden age” of films based on the Bible. This included DeMille’s most memorable film, his 3 hour and 39 minute 1956 re-make of “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston in the role of Moses, which DeMille also narrated. Filmed in Egypt and the Sinai Desert, its scale, scope and sets impressed the audience greatly. Heston played opposite Yul Brenner (as Rameses), in a competition for power that became a central organising theme for the first third of the film – and appears to be replicated in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus”. Heston also starred in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” (1959), a much less didactic film than “The Ten Commandments”. Although not based on a biblical story, its setting (Roman-occupied Palestine) and themes – slavery and Jewish nationalism – place it in the same genre. It also provided a clear forerunner to Scott’s “Gladiator”, with numerous plot similarities. Audiences loved these films: “The Ten Commandments” is still the sixth most popular (inflation-adjusted) film ever released in North America (just behind “Titanic”), and “Ben-Hur” the thirteenth.

Other notable biblical films of this period included “David and Bathsheba” (1951), “The Robe” (1953), “Solomon and Sheba” (1959), “The Story of Ruth” (1960), “Esther and the King” (1960), “David and Goliath” (1961) and “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1963). In 1966, John Huston directed a financially successful three-hour version of “The Bible … In the Beginning” using the King James version wording; he also narrated Genesis 1 word for word and played the character of Noah.

Jewish film scholars disagree in part about the significance of these 1950s and early 1960s biblical films. Lester D. Friedman laments the “superficial ideas, cardboard characterization, and weak dramatic development” that were only barely hidden by “sprawling spectacles, luxuriant sets and expensive costumes”. By contrast, Patricia Erens believes that the biblical epics enabled film-makers to make covert comments on the Holocaust, Jewish suffering, Jewish survival and “reconstitution in the new State of Israel” – all of this undertaken in a time of cultural and political conservatism.

There have been numerous artistic re-imaginings of the story of Jesus: “The Gospel According to Matthew” (1966), “Godspell” (1973), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), the comic “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). None of these strained for the “epic” label, however. That was left to Bruce Beresford’s “King David” (1985) with Richard Gere in the title role; it was universally panned and flopped unreservedly. Since then – until relatively recently – producers have avoided the biblical epics pretty much (forgive the pun) “like the plague”.

There were a few exceptions. In 1998, DreamWorks Pictures produced a successful animated musical of the Exodus story, entitled “The Prince of Egypt”, with Val Kilmer as the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, along with Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Steve Martin. It follows the Cecil B. DeMille “Ten Commandments” story closely and openly acknowledges that it has freely adapted the Bible.

Why does the biblical genre seem to be returning now? The answer to this question is a long socio-cultural and historical analysis of our present moment that will only become apparent in a few years’ time. So when “Exodus” opens next month, we Jews will watch it avidly with many questions in mind. How Jewish is Moses and his people? How true to the biblical story has Scott and his screenwriters been? And what does it tell us about how we Jews live now?

(and posters from “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur” below)

ten commandments posterBen Hur poster

How’s Noah doing now?

May 17, 2014

Back on April 3, 2014 I published my review of the film “Noah”, and observed privately that the film was under-appreciated by critics but would turn out to be popular.

So how’s “Noah” doing now?

As of 15 May 2014, the film had grossed just over US$100 million in North America, plus an additional US$239 million outside North America (“foreign”, in the Americo-centric view of the world). This is by no means an American “hit”, but the international box office – comprising some 70.5% of the total – will give much comfort to the studio (Paramount) and the director/co-writer (Darren Aronofsky). It’s fair to say that “Noah” has not “broken through” to the American Christian audience, especially the “high value” Evangelicals that supported “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. But almost $340 million (and counting) in the international box office is no small change.

Here in Australia, after seven weeks of release “Noah” has grossed Aus$12,433,000. The “rule of thumb” comparing film popularity in Australia versus North America is the “law of ten”: Australia expects about 10% of the North American box office, setting aside differences in exchange rates. At $12.4 million/$100 million, we are running just over 12%: proportionately a bit more popular than in the USA. The Russell Crowe factor (although born in New Zealand, he – mostly – lives here in Sydney, so we claim him; sorry Kiwis) may be part of it. Not a great hit here, but respectable, very much so.

However the Box Office Mojo figures from other countries tell an even more interesting story: $30 million in Brazil, almost $5 million in Colombia (Colombia?), about $11 million in each of France, Germany and Italy; a staggering $33 million in Russia (1/3 of North America, surely this may be some sort of record?); $14 million in South Korea; and more than $6 million in Turkey (all $US).

You can do the sums. Increasingly, “big” films are being supported by international box office takings, and that’s no small thing.

The Passion of the Christ ten years on: are things any different now?

April 18, 2014

It’s been just over ten years since “The Passion of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson blockbuster film about the death of Jesus, opened in cinemas worldwide to great controversy.

The film was controversial for three reasons: excessive violence, the inclusion of “extra” (non)-Biblical events and themes and its suggestive portrayal of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Of these three issues, it was the last one – Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus – that was the most profoundly unsettling. The film’s directorial auteur Mel Gibson exacerbated this issue by conducting long-running public arguments with a series of media commentators and Jewish religious leaders in the USA. By the time the dust had settled, the film had grossed many hundreds millions of dollars, made Gibson a wildly wealthy man who never had to consider working again, and turned most Jews – along with a large part of American film-makers – against Gibson.

Even now, when the “passion” has faded from the controversy, the mention of Gibson’s name causes ripples of concern in many quarters.

This coming Saturday night – 19 April 2014 – here in Australia, SBS Television is broadcasting “The Passion of the Christ” on its primary channel at 9.30pm, it’s best movie spot. For some years, one or other of the commercial channels – Nine or Seven – broadcast the film, and now the broadcast rights have moved on. Whereas the commercial channels approached the broadcast in a commercial-with-religious-angle way (as they will), SBS is missing the opportunity to engage in some significant community debate about this film.

Just because “The Passion of the Christ” controversy has virtually disappeared does not mean that the film’s content has changed: the same violence, the same extra-Biblical elements and – most importantly – the same negative portrayals of Jews all remain. It was these elements that specifically do not follow the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1988 document “Criteria for the Evaluation of the Dramatizations of the Passion”.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Sr. Rose Pacatte wrote in “The National Catholic Reporter” wrote on 22 February 2014:

Gibson made a film that confirmed many stereotypes of the Jews, such as depicting the moment when the bag of silver was tossed to Judas in slow motion and Judas looked at it lovingly; the “bad” Jewish men with fang-like teeth and the “good guys” with nice teeth; the sneering hatred from the high priest when he questions Jesus; and Pilate calling the Jews “filthy rabble.” Certainly not the first to do so, Gibson uses stereotypes, some more subtle than others, to create a group of “bad” Jews to confront the “good” Jews consisting of Jesus, Mary and their followers who would be thought of as aligned with Christians today.

It’s a strong film, well-made, and has been very moving for many people. Unfortunately, as Sr Pacatte also found out, most who watch it believe that it is a totally literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Biblical blockbuster “Noah” (by Jewish film-maker Darren Aronofsky) is currently screening in our cinemas. And guess what? It too has excessive violence and loads of extra-Biblical elements. (See my review for more details.) But what it does NOT include are screen images that reinforce ancient prejudices towards Jews – or any other group.

Come on, SBS, get with it. Are you just a commercial television channel with no community responsibility? Doesn’t your status as a national broadcaster and your multicultural charter lead you to attempt to create proper discussion around the significant and misleading elements of “The Passion of the Christ”? From what I can see, apparently not.

Film review of Noah

April 3, 2014

(A shortened form of this film review of “Noah” appeared in the “Australian Jewish News” on April 3, 2014.)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone

The new biblical epic film “Noah” is a dark, entertaining, messy but rich cinematic experience. Its Jewish director, Darren Aronofsky, is best-known for his feverish and emotionally bleak films with mystical overtones (“Black Swan”, “The Wrestler”, “The Fountain”). In “Noah”, he has created an apocalyptic story of undeniable beauty, which even ventures to illustrate the creation of the earth and replay the story of Adam and Eve. Much of the first third of the film shows Noah – apparently the last righteous man on earth – wandering with his family in a landscape of depravity, debauchery and ecological disaster, increasingly haunted by hallucinations of tragedies to come. These images, and later ones of the large rectangular ark, are powerful and truly memorable.

“Noah” features an all-star cast, headed by Russell Crowe in the title role. This brooding, highly conflicted but yet driven character has heroic action and fighting capabilities, despatching groups of bad guys through great sword and spear fighting skills, oddly reminiscent of Crowe’s “Gladiator” role (Noah as action figure: who would have thought?). Aside from Crowe – who gives one of his best performances in years, other actors include rock-hard Jennifer Connelly (Oscar-winner for “A Beautiful Mind” co-starring with Crowe) as Noah’s wife Naameh; a mature Emma Watson as Shem’s wife Ila; Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s wizard-like grandfather Methuselah; Ray Winstone as Noah’s nemesis Tubal-Cain (see Genesis 4); and Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo Carrell as the sons Ham, Shem and Japeth.

The last major biblical story to “open wide” in movie theatres was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, back in February 2004. While “Noah” has caused some controversy (and been banned in a number of Muslim countries), it pales by comparison to the antisemitism, violence and interpretation controversies that surrounded “The Passion”. The story of Noah, of course, is from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”, in Christian terminology), and it has a Jewish director with expertise in dark “art” films and who – unlike Gibson – has never claimed divine inspiration for his work.

Aronofsky’s lack of “final cut” (full artistic control) of his film – held by the film studio Paramount – may very well have caused some of the film’s uneven-ness in tone and story. The resulting experience is part art film (it’s stunningly beautiful to look at), part biblical epic and part modern large scale action movie, complete with a climactic battle scene straight from “The Lord of the Rings”. That the three parts of this film fit together uncomfortably is not a fault of trying too little, but attempting (and risking) too much with a story that comprises only a handful of pages in the Bible.

Despite Paramount’s attempts to woo the Christian audience (especially in the United States, where evangelical Christians make up about a third of the population), “Noah” the film is the biggest “Jewish” film epic to come on screen in decades. Although both Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel identify publicly as atheists, both were raised in Conservative Jewish families, and worked on their vision for the film through what they describe as “Jewish Midrash”, researching extensively through Jewish texts, apocryphal books and even going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Despite – or more probably, because – of this research, “Noah” the film re-writes the story of Noah in a number of very significant ways, ones that may drive viewers scrambling back to read the original story in Genesis. One of the strangest inclusions in “Noah” was a major elaboration of “The Watchers” (the “Nephilim”, or “fallen ones” from Genesis 6:4), using mostly ex-biblical sources like the books of Enoch and Jubilees. As presented in this film, these large stone creatures (half out of Harry Potter and half from the “Transformers” series, complete with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella) are angry with humans, but agree to assist Noah in making the ark and protecting him. In the preview screening that I attended, Paramount ran a promotional trailer for the next “Transformers” film (“Age of Extinction”, opening Australia in June). Seeing the stone transformers-like “Watchers” on screen a short time later caused some titters in the audience. We are meant to take “Noah” seriously as a story, and this explicit pop-culture reference was both distracting and unintentionally funny.

More significant than the inclusion of “The Watchers” is what actually takes place just before and on the ark. While the Bible tells us that Noah’s three sons in turn bring three wives onboard the ark, in this film version only one does – and she’s pregnant. And Aronofsky’s fanatical Noah believes that they are all doomed to die anyway, setting the scene for significant family tensions (to say the least). Further, unlike the biblical narrative (forgive the minor spoiler), there is a human stowaway on the ark.

Unlike Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, “Noah” comes to us in full English with no attempts at ancient languages. Here every character sports some version of a British accent (Crowe frequently sounded Australian to me, but perhaps I was imagining it). This follows a long but rocky tradition of accents in biblical epics: British accents work well for Americans (still the primary audience for this film), giving them just enough “remove” to feel sufficiently “ancient”. The word “God” is never mentioned, with everyone simply referring to “the Creator”.

Another way to view “Noah” the film is as a parable on global warming and environmental desecration. This is not an unusual message: the ecological message of living in harmony with nature featured obviously in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar”.

The story of Noah is a popular one: John Huston played Noah in the 1966 film “The Bible”; Steve Carrell played a funny version in “Evan Almighty”; and a 1928 silent version entitled “Noah’s Ark” was blighted by the deaths of three stunt performers while shooting the flood.

Certainly this “Noah” is the darkest version of the story in recent memory. It’s often clumsy and maddeningly uneven, but never less than sincere and entertaining.