A brief comment on the Exodus: Gods and Kings casting controversy

exodus-yahoo-3Three months ago, Ridley Scott noted that the actors he hired for Exodus: Gods and Kings represent a range of different ethnicities, and hardly anyone noticed. Last week, he made an off-the-cuff remark about how he couldn’t cast some obscure Middle Eastern actor as the lead in a massively expensive movie such as this, and the internet went berserk.

Scott’s comment was quickly assumed by many people to mean that he was justifying hiring an “all-white” cast. Many people claimed, dubiously, that it would be more historically accurate if the villainous Egyptian slave masters, many of whom are killed by an act of God at the Red Sea, were played by black actors instead. (Just think what sort of controversies there would be if the film had gone that route.)

The Week’s Jonathan Merritt even went so far as to say today that no Bible movie — not even The Nativity Story, which cast a Maori girl as the Virgin Mary, a Palestinian as her mother and Iranians as her father and her cousin Elizabeth — has made any progress when it comes to “sensitivity to ethnicity”. Apparently the fact that Keisha Castle-Hughes was born in Australia disqualifies that film somehow. Seriously?

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Is Cliff Curtis playing Jesus in Clavius?

cliffcurtis-keishacastlehughesThe father becomes the son…

Twelve years ago, Cliff Curtis played the father of Keisha Castle-Hughes in the acclaimed film Whale Rider.

Four years later, Castle-Hughes played the Virgin Mary in The Nativity Story.

Now comes word that Curtis may — may — be playing Mary’s son Jesus in Clavius, in which a Roman centurion investigates reports of the Resurrection.

It’s all speculation at this point. But Thompson on Hollywood, speaking to Curtis about another film at the Toronto film festival, mentions that Curtis is something of a method actor, and that he refuses to talk during interviews right now (though he will gesture with his hands and write notes on his laptop) because he is currently playing “a man of God … who speaks only of God,” in Curtis’s words.

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How do you promote a Bible epic when you’re not religious?

Ridley Scott first revealed that he was making a life-of-Moses movie while promoting Prometheus last year. I’d been hoping that he would spill even more details about the film, now called Exodus, while promoting his latest film, The Counselor, but alas, that film didn’t get much of a promotional push (and it ended up having one of the worst opening weekends of Scott’s career).

A few tidbits about Exodus have trickled out, however. First, Scott told The New York Times: “I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.” And then, he told Empire magazine the film will be “fucking huge.”

Suffice it to say, this is not how Bible epics have generally been promoted in the past.

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The naked Christ in film: birth, death and resurrection

“The Word became flesh,” according to John 1:14, but that flesh has been hidden, for the most part, in movie portrayals of Jesus. At certain key points in his life, history and even tradition would dictate that Jesus ought to be depicted nude — and there are good theological reasons for doing so. But films have tended to shy away from nudity in their own portrayals of those parts of the Jesus story.

There are some obvious reasons for this reticence, of course, starting with the fact that film, for much of its history, has been forced to skirt around images of nudity in general, and images of male nudity in particular. Plus, when a film does show someone’s nudity, it does not merely show you the character’s nudity; it shows you the actor’s nudity, as well, and the knowledge that you are seeing an actor’s naked body can sometimes distract you from the character. This is especially true when the character is meant to be an embodiment of divinity like Jesus.

There have been at least three significant exceptions, though — three films that each depict the nudity of Jesus at a different key point in his story.

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Hollywood? No, SHER-wood!

How Sherwood Baptist Church became a hot spot for making Christian movies — including Facing the Giants and the upcoming Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron.

The regular film world has the Coens, the Wachowskis, and the Farrellys — brothers who collaborate on producing and directing both blockbusters and arthouse flicks.

The Christian film world has the Kendricks — a couple of associate pastors in Albany, Georgia who made a couple of ultra-low-budget movies with a mostly volunteer cast and crew as part of their church’s outreach program, and then hit it big when the second film, Facing the Giants, grossed just over $10 million at the box office.

Now they’re putting the finishing touches on their third film, Fireproof, due for a theatrical release on September 26. The film concerns a firefighter whose marriage is on the rocks, and whose father challenges him to take “the Love Dare” — a series of recommended activities that might, just might, help patch things up.

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Review: The Nativity Story (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2006)

The Passion of The Christ was an independent movie, paid for entirely out of Mel Gibson’s pocket. The Prince of Egypt was an animated film that emphasized the common ground between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Last Temptation of Christ was a low-budget art-house flick based on a heretical novel.

You would have to go back at least as far as King David, the mid-1980s box-office flop starring Richard Gere, to find another live-action movie produced by a major Hollywood studio and based directly on the Bible. And you would have to go back even further — to the bathrobe epics of the 1960s, at least — to find a mainstream biblical movie that was as blatantly Christian as The Nativity Story.

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