Dante’s Inferno — trailer online!

Thanks to my colleague David F. Dawes for pointing this out to me. Apparently the first feature-length Italian film was an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno released way back in 1911 — and now it is available on DVD, with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Check the trailer here — the effects are very impressive!

The gospels are now complete!

Don’t know if it comes through, but I’m going for a Star Wars style “the saga is now complete” tone with that title there.

Anyway, in all my years of trawling the internet, I have come across only one person whose enthusiasm for film adaptations of the Bible rivals my own, and that is Matt Page.

So thanks to Matt for tipping me off to the fact that a teaser for the Visual Bible’s Gospel of Mark is now available here — you have to wait until the front page finishes loading, and then you have to click on “video clips” and wait until that screen finishes loading, but the teaser is there, just waiting to be found.

Interestingly, as Matt notes, the filmmakers appear to be going back to actor Henry Cusick and narrator Christopher Plummer, who both worked on The Gospel of John, and if so, this would appear to mark the first time since the 1950s that an actor has played Jesus twice (assuming we don’t count Bruce Marchiano’s cameo in the Visual Bible’s Acts, following his starring role in their Gospel according to Matthew) (my reviews). It’s a shame, in a way, because each gospel has its own character, and it might be good to heighten the differences in emphasis between the gospels by casting different actors and using different voices.

Another interesting question is how this film will deal with the multiple endings of Mark — which manuscript will it run with? Of course, word-for-word adaptations of any biblical text have to deal with these issues, when there are variations in words here or there; it’s just rare that you find variations in entire passages. (Incidentally, that famous incident with the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11 actually appears in a few different places — not just in John but also in Luke! — depending on the manuscript.)

And why do I say “the gospels are now complete”? Because Mark is the last to be given the word-for-word treatment. In addition to the Visual Bible’s adaptations of Matthew and John, there was also the Genesis Project’s adaptation of Luke in the 1970s, which was condensed into what is now widely-known as “the Jesus film.”

More Dogme delights, perhaps?

I do not subscribe to ScreenDaily.com, but I do subscribe to their newsletter, so while I cannot access or quote the content of this article, I can quote the summary from the newsletter:

Lone Scherfig is set to direct semi-autobiographical script written by Lars von Trier.

Scherfig was, I believe, the first woman to direct a Dogme95 film — said film being Italian for Beginners (alas, my review does not appear to be online) — and she went on direct Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (my film-fest blurb). And Trier, of course, is the notorious bad boy of Danish cinema who oversaw the Dogme95 campaign and happens to have made some interesting films, the merits of which cinephiles debate rather intensely. FWIW, searches for “erik nietzsche” and the like turn up a lot of foreign websites but nothing, so far that I can see, in English. So if anyone hears any more info on this film, by all means feel free to post it here.

The assassination of Sean Penn

Just a few links to reviews here. I didn’t care much for The Assassination of Richard Nixon when I saw it four months ago — it’s an interesting film in some ways, but some of its political elements seemed like a stretch to me — and it’s been interesting, as the film has slowly rolled into and out of theatres here and there, to see other writers put into words why it didn’t work for me.

In the New Republic, Jonathan Kiefer wrote:

For a serious actor, Byck’s mysteries make irresistible fodder. For a self-serious actor, they’re imperative. Clearly, he and Penn were made for each other. But that’s not to say they make much headway together in the name of political progress. Byck, or “Bicke” as the movie calls him, probably figured the assassination attempt was his last chance for eminence. Not if Sean Penn has anything to say about it. For Penn, it’s as if playing a successful assassin, someone whose name you know, just wouldn’t do. Mueller’s script, cowritten with Kevin Kennedy, is the perfect Penn vehicle: The Assassination of Richard Nixon suggests, rather bluntly, but with conviction, that even being a psychopathic mediocrity shouldn’t necessarily exclude you from the American Dream.

Then, in the National Review, Thomas Hibbs wrote:

Bicke’s greatest emotional connection is with children. In scenes with children, he is at once a sympathetic, pathetic, and mildly frightening. Obsessed with innocence lost, Bicke is drawn to the simplicity of children but in a way that is unhealthy, inappropriately needy for an adult, especially a parent. Indeed, Bicke is in the grips of an immature, romantic, and finally deranged vision of the ordinary man and the American dream. No one who cares for him in the film ever comes close to adopting his theories; audiences are apt to have even less sympathy. How is it then that Penn could imagine Bicke as a vehicle for the expression of the political and social frustrations of our time?

The point the film actually makes concerns the danger lurking within such irrational romanticism, a danger that the obsession with innocence can, once it enters the political order, flip over into violence against what it takes to be the corrupting forces of civilized power. Whatever shred of political principle is left is quickly engulfed by irrational rage that lashes out, not at a well-chosen target, but at whatever crosses its path. There are important political and social lessons here, but they are apparently lost on Sean Penn, political commentator.

And finally, for the Spectator, Mark Steyn now weighs in. Being a Broadway buff, Steyn naturally begins by referring to that other fictionalized portrayal of Byck, in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins; and being a champion punster, he also gets this zinger in:

Everything that’s joyous and gleeful in the Weidman sketch on Byck [in Sondheim's Assassins] is dragged out beyond its natural length here — starting with Byck’s name, rendered here as ‘Bicke’. Don’t ask me why they got rid of the ‘y’: it’s not often the cries of ‘Get me rewrite!’ arise because the lead character needs more vowels. And, given that he’s played by a Penn, why didn’t they just rename him Bic?

I think Steyn might go a little far with his critique of Penn’s humourlessness in this role — Hibbs rightly notes the humour of the scene where Byck (or Bicke, whatever) meets the Black Panthers and suggests they rename themselves the Zebras — but yeah, for the most part, there is definitely something of that here.

It does make me curious to see what Penn’s performance in The Interpreter will be like when it opens next week. It seems like such a slick Hollywood production — it is directed by the man who directed Tom Cruise in The Firm, and it co-stars Cruise’s ex-wife Nicole Kidman (come to think of it, Penn co-starred with Cruise in Taps, didn’t he?) — that it seems a little odd to see Penn’s deeply wrinkled brow on the screen in the midst of all that. Then again, the film does take place at the United Nations, which probably caters to one or another of Penn’s political pet peeves.

Sister Rose’s Passion, etc.

There was much chatter a few months ago about how the Academy had “snubbed” The Passion of the Christ by failing to nominate it in more than three categories (even though two, cinematography and music, are mighty significant from a filmmaking point of view and arguably matter more than the celebrity contests that are the acting awards). Interestingly, pretty much no pundit noted the fact that the Academy also nominated Sister Rose’s Passion, Oren Jacoby’s documentary short about a nun who played a significant part in convincing the higher-ups at Vatican II to formally reject anti-Semitism.

FWIW, I just Google’d “passion snubbed” and checked all the blogs and news sites for the first two pages of results, and not one of them made reference to Jacoby’s film. For my part, on the basis of the documentary’s topic alone, I did make a connection at the time between the Gibson and Jacoby films in my own Oscar column, but purely on the level of Oscar politics.

At the time, I didn’t assume much more than that someone had been making a film about Sr. Rose Thering and gave the film its title to capitalize on the controversy around the alleged anti-Semitism of Gibson’s film. But last night I finally saw Jacoby’s film for myself, at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, and I began to notice how a number of the interviewees (Paula Fredriksen, Sr. Mary C. Boys, Fr. John Pawlikowski) had been members of the ad hoc group of scholars that became outspoken critics of Gibson’s film, and then, finally, the last 5-10 minutes of this 38-minute film were all about The Passion itself and how we need to be vigilant lest these old prejudices resurface, etc. So, there appears to be little or nothing coincidental about that link at all.

FWIW, my own mixed feelings about Gibson’s film extend to his presentation of the Jewish characters. I love that he emphasizes the Jewishness of the proto-Christian characters, especially the Virgin Mary and Simon of Cyrene, but I wish he hadn’t been so flagrantly unhistorical and unbiblical as to make Pilate a thoughtful and righteous patsy of Caiaphas’s, and that he hadn’t been so flagrantly unhistorical and unbiblical as to delete Caiaphas‘s realpolitik motivations; and it might have been nice if there had been just one Gamaliel figure, someone who rejects but also tolerates proto-Christianity and who opposes Caiaphas from that angle — and no, the brief moment when the proto-Christians Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea protest the actions of the Sanhedrin, a staple in Jesus films, doesn’t quite suffice.

I do not think Gibson himself is anti-Semitic — quite the opposite, in fact — but I do think he is naive, uncritical, anti-scholarly, and prone towards vulgarity and oversimplification, and that these tendencies of his have influenced the way he passes on traditions that have historically been problematic in this area. What’s more, these tendencies of his have rendered him somewhat incoherent in trying to discuss these issues once these criticisms of his source materials are raised in the public arena — and his incoherence, combined with his flip-flopping (he promised to remove an inflammatory subtitle, then put it back in the rough cut, then took it out again), had the effect of appearing like little more than a brazen attempt to stoke the film’s controversy, all for the sake of keeping it in the news and increasing its box-office success.

Unfortunately, Gibson’s critics haven’t helped, thanks to their own tendency to oversimplify — they rarely acknowledge any of the film’s pro-Jewish elements — and alas, Sister Rose’s Passion does reflect that sort of knee-jerk approach. For the first half-hour or so, I actually found the film fairly educational and informative. I grew up in a very pro-Jewish evangelical environment, where we sang Jewish-styled praise songs by the likes of Merv and Merla Watson, and what’s more, my Mennonite ancestors grew up in Russian and Ukrainian villages rather similar to the Jewish village in Fiddler on the Roof, and then of course there were films like Jesus of Nazareth which made a point of pronouncing the Jewish elements in Jesus’ life — so I always felt a certain kinship with Jews on those levels, and if anything, as a boy who memorized biblical geneaologies, I even envied them their blood ties to Christ.

As Martin Luther put it, in one of his better moments, “We should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are.” (That was in 1523, when the Reformation was just starting out and Luther was inclined to praise Jews for refusing to join the “dolts and blockheads” of the Catholic church. Twenty years later, bitter that Jews had failed to convert en masse to Protestantism, and with a greater supply of non-Catholics on his side, Luther took a considerably harsher line. But I digress.)

I bring that all up because it is always shocking and startling to me whenever I hear anyone say that it is Christian teaching that “the Jews” killed Christ. This was not the teaching of my upbringing. It is not what I find in the gospels. It violates everything I know historically. And yet, there it is, in Sr. Rose’s research — all those Catholic schoolbooks, and all those radio broadcasts by Fr. Coughlin, and all those other things that spread the worst kinds of ideas about Jewish people in the days before Vatican II.

So, clearly, there has traditionally been a problem in this area in the past — and I hate to admit it, but my awareness of this problem has caused me to wince just a wee bit whenever I hear those ancient hymns in my Orthodox church about how “the Jews” had sealed the tomb while “the soldiers” guarded Jesus’ body. I know, I know, using terms like “the Jews” to describe Jesus’ opponents is a practise that goes all the way back to John’s (very Jewish) gospel at least, and the Orthodox church emphasizes much of Jewish scripture and practice that my evangelical associates tend to ignore, but to be fair, shouldn’t that be either “the Jews” and “the Romans”, or “the priests” and “the soldiers”? (Again, I digress.)

Anyway, like I was saying, clearly there have been problems in this area, and Jacoby’s film probably should have kept its focus on the historical big picture. However, by jumping into the Gibson debate the way it does — and by siding so strongly with one side of that debate — Jacoby’s film risks becoming stuck in time, and it fails to foster a more constructive dialogue around these issues.

I caught a couple other films while I was at the theatre. Mixed Blessings was an interesting look at interfaith and especially Jewish-Christian couples — correction, families, since interfaith relationships don’t seem to be that big a deal for mere couples but become intensely problematic once the couples have children and must choose a spiritual path within which to raise them. As a cradle Mennonite who has married a convert to Orthodoxy and attends a church where nearly every adult is also a convert to Orthodoxy, I of course find this subject interesting, though I think the gaps between different churches are much less profound than those between different faiths; I don’t think we can say, as one character does in the film, that because our parents were Lutheran and Catholic, it therefore follows that Catholics can marry Jews. If beliefs are going to matter at all — and according to one of the interviewees, beliefs really don’t matter for Jews, though culture and ritual certainly do! — then it seems to me that you do have to ask, at some point, who and what Jesus is. (And the particular person I just cited makes a point of saying that her priest omitted any reference to Jesus in the wedding ceremony, at the request of her mother. It boggles my mind that any “devout” Christian would want to leave Jesus out of the wedding, but there you go.) One man says people should never convert for the sake of their marriage, because one’s relationship with God is more important than one’s relationship with a spouse, but, um, isn’t that exactly why people should marry within their faiths?

Finally, after all that heavy stuff, there was Shalom Ireland, a bright, sparkly, entertaining documentary about that tiny, shrinking, but hopefully rebounding community of Jews who live in Ireland and have apparently had much success there. The man pictured here is Robert Briscoe, the first Jew elected Lord Mayor of Dublin (yes, there was another — his son!), and apparently it was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Isaac Herzog, who went on to become the first Chief Rabbi of Israel; his son Chaim went on to become President of Israel as well. There are some fascinating anecdotes here, and the soundtrack has a nice kind of Celtic Klezmer feel. My one criticism, perhaps, would be that the film could have benefitted from more interviewees; it felt as though we were getting our stories from a very small group of people. Which, I suppose, may be representative enough!

Fun with Google maps!

I have lived in downtown Vancouver for a bit more than five and a half years, now, and I continue to be amazed at the fact that I can live so closely to all the important theatres. Now, thanks to Google, it is possible to trace my routes via satellite imaging! So, just in case anybody’s interested …

this is the exact path I walk whenever I go to the Fifth Avenue Cinema (except I don’t walk around the far side of our apartment building; I cut through the courtyard). The walk across the Burrard Street Bridge is especially nice; it’s much better than the Granville Street Bridge, which doesn’t “feel” so sturdy or secure.

this is pretty much the path I walk whenever I go to the Granville or Capitol theatres (which are across the street from each other).

this is how closely I live to the Pacific Cinematheque (obviously, I don’t make the loop around the block that is depicted here, which I guess a car would have to make).

… and this is definitely not the path I take whenever I walk to the Cinemark Tinseltown theatre — I prefer something more zig-zaggy — but the image at least gives you an idea of the distance. The Tinseltown, by the way, is currently the only theatre in the downtown area that has stadium-style seating, and it is also the only first-run theatre in the downtown area that is not owned (in whole or part) by either Famous Players or Cineplex Odeon.

All of these theatres are within a half-hour’s walk from my place, and it is fairly rare that I have to go any further afield for a press or preview screening. The one major exception is the SilverCity Metropolis theatre in Burnaby, which is the nearest stadium-style theatre to Vancouver that is run by one of the two main Canadian theatre chains. But to get to this theatre, I have to hop on a SkyTrain, and while this set of directions obviously does not follow the public-transit route that I take to get there, the image does at least give a sense of the distance involved.

With any luck, though, my trips to Burnaby may soon be a thing of the past! Famous Players is opening the brand-new Paramount Theatre on the corner of Burrard and Smithe in just a week or two, and that’s just four blocks away! Hopefully it will have all the accoutrements that the SilverCity has.

JUNE 21 UPDATE: And now, this is the route from my place to the Paramount — though I usually cut straight through the courtyard to Burrard and walk straight down the one street.

AUG 21 UPDATE: I have changed the links to take advantage of the new “hybrid” feature, which gives street names to satellite images.