French film The Son of Joseph riffs on biblical tropes

French film The Son of Joseph riffs on biblical tropes February 15, 2016

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I’m not all that familiar with Eugène Green, a French filmmaker who was born in New York, but apparently his films — such as La Sapienza and The Portuguese Nun — often dip into religious themes. His newest film The Son of Joseph, which premiered at the Berlin film festival over the weekend, is apparently no different.

The film concerns a teenager raised by a woman named Marie, who goes looking for his birth father and ends up finding a sort of surrogate parent in a man named Joseph. And there is reportedly lots of other religious symbolism in the film besides.

Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter writes:

Lighter than most of Green’s other work, with more clearly emphasized scenes of satire and a more playful sense of storytelling, this could very well travel further afield than Green’s more cerebral efforts, even though there’s no sense in any way that the director has compromised his vision to reach a (slightly) broader audience. The fact this was co-produced by the Dardenne brothers can only help. . . .

The Son of Joseph might be filled with talk about and visual allusions to God, Biblical art, life, parenthood, filialness and relationships but the way the material is handled is jocular without betraying the more serious ideas at its core. There’s a reason the two main adult characters are called Joseph and Marie, and Green gently plays around with the expectations of the viewers. Something similar applies to the film’s division in Biblically inspired chapters, with names such as The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Flight to Egypt and The Golden Calf (the latter the feature’s most out-and-out comic setpiece involving a satirical look at the ridiculously self-obsessed publishing world, with a cameo by Maria de Medeiros as a crackpot literary critic). The constant combination of highbrow and lowbrow elements is undeniably French but also very effective.

And Guy Lodge at Variety writes:

This is Green’s first team-up with producers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose increasingly catholic arthouse portfolio also includes this year’s Berlin competish title “Hedi.” “Catholic” may indeed be an operative word in this newly forged collaboration: The faith’s very structured principles of morality inform Green’s artifice-driven vision as playfully as they do, to rather more sober effect, the Belgian brothers’ contrastingly social-realist studies in human kindness and weakness. “Le Fils de Joseph” — a title that translates as “Son of Joseph,” about which we can draw our own Christian conclusions — has little time for sermonizing in its religious observations. Indeed, when Raphael O’Byrne’s camera does eventually enter a church, it’s merely to appreciate the finery — and the madrigal music, courtesy of famed ensemble Le Poeme Harmonique, whose reinterpretations of 16th- and 17th-century compositions by Mazzocchi, de’ Cavalieri and Otradovic lend the film on otherworldly lilt from the opening credits onwards. . . .

[The film’s] open-hearted appreciation of the surrounding world is not initially shared by its protagonist Vincent (Victor Ezenfis, making a notable big-screen debut), a sullen high-schooler whose anguish over his unknown paternity is routinely taken out on his saintly, endless forbearing single mother Marie (Natacha Regnier). Hostile and regarded with indifference even by his supposed friends — one of whom, in a thematically salient running gag, is attempting to run a private sperm bank — Vincent spends much of his time in his spartan room, staring a little too intently at a forbidding print of Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” (The painting also provides the title for the third of the film’s five chapters; others, varying in degree of cryptic Biblical significance, include “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “The Golden Calf,” “The Carpenter” and “The Flight Into Egypt.”)

Marie, incidentally, is played by Natacha Régnier, who shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1998 with her co-star Élodie Bouchez for The Dreamlife of Angels. I haven’t seen that film in years, but it was a hugely important film to me at the time.

I look forward to seeing this new one. I’ll link to more reviews later if I find any.

February 17 update: Alissa Wilkinson at Christianity Today:

Vincent is the kind of kid who has a massive print of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac on the wall in his bedroom. We only find this out after discovering that the film is divided into chapters: “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “The Golden Calf,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” “The Carpenter,” and “The Flight into Egypt.” Caravaggio pops up in the first chapter, and the final chapter has the most obvious allusions to the Bible: by the end of it (not to really give anything away) we have our Holy Family, complete with donkey, the “virgin” dressed in the traditional blue used in paintings of Mary for centuries, fleeing danger for the shore.

And yet the whole thing is sort of like a Bible Remix Lite. It’s reasonable to assume that Biblical patriarchs, for instance, might lose track of how many children they have. Joseph and Vincent have several conversations about how you know God is speaking to you, and how Joseph (in the Bible) chose to become Jesus’ father. Vincent makes one key choice based on what he believes an angel told him. There are more paintings, more allusions throughout—and yet it’s not an allegory. Don’t go trying to find the key to the film in a Bible story. A lot of the film’s fun comes from just seeing those motifs pop up, like jokes.

David González at Cineuropa:

It is this irreverent, absurd and intellectualised brand of humour, bristling with metaphors and meaning, that Green clearly masters, as if he were following in the recent footsteps of another highly philosophical French auteur, Bruno Dumont, in search of a result that is as rich as it is unique.

Because of course, we see all of this following Green’s decision to turn his characters into mere instruments, forced to recite their dialogue without any kind of expression, almost as if it were a study on how not to act. True to himself, the director continues to get the most out of his characteristic hieratic style, which is complemented extremely well by a more comical approach, in contrast with his other, more serious films.

David Hudson at Keyframe Daily also likes the film, calling it: “Just lovely.”

February 23 update: Jessica Kiang at The Playlist:

The biblical references that abound are never overdone, rather they come as sweet little surprises in a film that’s filled with multicolored pick-and-mix referentialism, taking in Jules Verne and 17th century chamber music; religious iconography and Truffaut; the Paris street photography of Cartier-Bresson and Doiseau and the Baroque theater tradition. But the lightness with which Green employs the kind of symbolism that is usually so heavily pregnant with Meaning and Importance that it might as well have a stop sign erected beside it attached to a 6-volume explanation, is a relief. Calmed by Raphael O’Byrne‘s resolutely tranquil camera, there’s a sense that it’s okay not to parse every passing nod for significance — they are the means by which Green is communicating, not the end. "Le Fils de Joseph" is fun, even before the donkey appears.

But that’s not to say it’s the finger-painted daubs of a child playing with a palette they don’t understand. Green’s polyamory for all these disciplines — art, architecture, cinema, music, theater — isn’t just broad, it’s deep and discerning. You get the feeling that what we see here are merely the tips of many icebergs of hard-won, well-earned knowledge, it’s just that Green is the diametric opposite of a show-off. And that’s what makes his film, despite the stiff formality of his style, and the relative obscurity of many of his areas of expertise, feel so genuine, generous and joyful. Art, religion, music, literature — all are valuable, but not so much for themselves as for the means they provide for people to connect, and then get on with more important things.

More reviews later, if I find any.

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