The New Bible Picture: How Contemporary Filmmakers Are Putting A Dark Twist On A Classic Genre
Cecil B. DeMille, the king of the classic Bible picture, once famously said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” One wonders if DeMille was trying to be boastful when he proclaimed this, because if he was, he certainly didn’t do a very good job. The Bible is filled to the brim with countless parables that serve to illuminate both the good and bad sides of human nature, and it ought to go without saying that any filmmaker who possesses a modicum of storytelling talent should be able to adapt any number of the myriad of stories found in it. However, while DeMille’s declaration certainly shows that any filmmaker with the gumption to adapt a Biblical tale for the screen can easily do so, it by no means offers any sort of advice on how the story should be interpreted and, moreover, what the overall tone of the film should be.
From the 1920’s to the 1950’s, DeMille made a number of Bible pictures that ranged from the story of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (1927’s The King of Kings) to the tale of Samson’s triumph over the Philistines (1949’s Samson and Delilah). He was also responsible for the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments and the 1956 re-make that starred Charlton Heston as Moses. Each story was more extravagant than the last and each are now regarded as amazing feats of technical filmmaking. DeMille’s success, however, should not imply that he had a monopoly on the Bible film; other filmmakers like Henry Koster and William Wyler made films that dealt with divine stories that were just as impressive as any of DeMille’s efforts.
But by the mid-1960’s, the ancient epics began to lose their public and critical appeal. Films like Cleopatra, The Bible: In the Beginning, and The Fall of the Roman Empire were given universal thumbs down for their reliance on luxurious sets (which many regarded as the worst example of Hollywood self-indulgence) and dismissal of true human substance.
There may also be another, more subtle reason, for the decline of the Bible picture during the 1960’s and it is not an issue of set design and production value, but rather an issue of narrative and character. All of the classic Bible films were told in a fairly straight forward way; the good guys were good all the way and had the Big Fella in the sky looking out for them, and the bad guys were lowdown scoundrels who deserved everything they got, which was usually God’s wrath. It is a fun, simple kind of story that can touch the heart of any romantic, but even then, it can get a bit boring to see the same thing over and over again. Sure, the characters and the story may be a tad different, but the overall theme is still the same: The Godly man will be saved while the heathen is struck down by the Almighty. Films can usually get away with telling relatively similar stories, but the 60’s epics were suffering from flat out homogenization. As there was really nothing new to expect from these films, the public decided to stop going, and it wasn’t long before studios realized that there was no profit in even trying to make such movies anymore. And so it was that the Bible film would lay dormant for about 40 years.
But then around the turn of the century, it appeared that Biblical films were about to enter mainstream theaters again. The 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt was received with positive reviews (it currently holds a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes) regarding its resplendent animation as well as its dramatic emphasis on the Exodus story. DeMille’s telling of Moses’s story was fun to look at, but it didn’t carry much emotional weight. Moses did exactly as God instructed him and Ramses was defeated at the end of the day. But the animated version of Moses’s tale was much darker and intense; when you watch the picture, you see Moses’ heartbreak at having to be the one to free the Hebrews at the cost of losing his friendship with his brother Ramses (there is a powerful line in the song The Plagues in which Moses declares, “Even now, I wish that God had chose another”).
This clash between divine instruction and personal desires is one that (relative to the history of the Biblical epic) has barely been tapped into and is still rarely explored by filmmakers. Following The Prince of Egypt, the two most notable films in the Biblical genre were Catherine Hardwick’s The Nativity Story and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. While both films were respected for being technically proficient and well crafted, they were still regarded as modern rehashes of old (some may say outdated) stories that didn’t really offer anything new. Gibsons’ picture was controversial and caused a lot of talk, but that was mainly because of the explicit violence, not the overall interpretation of the story. Again, it seemed as though this genre of film would be lost to the annals of cinematic history.
But in 2014, we were given a radical new vision of what the Bible film can be like in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Now, it ought to be stressed that this picture has gained fairly lackluster reviews. Some people dislike it because it deviates from the original story too much, others because the deviations themselves are too outlandish to comprehend (while he didn’t flat out dislike the movie, film critic Mark Kermode said that it is more of a sci-fi picture than a Biblical epic). But one of the biggest criticisms against the film is directed at the eponymous character, played by Russell Crowe. As Andrew O’Hehir of Salon magazine describes him, Noah is, “…a satanic antihero” and a “…vegan cult leader.”
Others share his interpretation of the character and demonize him for being a savage person who puts the orders of God before his family. But this is exactly why the film is so thought provoking; Noah does do all of these horrid things, and he is not at all the most compassionate or sympathetic character in the movie. But within the film’s universe, we see that each of the commands that Noah is given takes something out of him and makes him more abrasive and cruel. There is a sense that he doesn’t like what he is being commanded to do but has to force himself to do it because God is ordering him to (bear in mind, this is a film where God exists and does, to some degree, tell Noah what to do).
The confusion, the heartache, the fury, the confidence, and the doubt that plagues Noah’s mind is all present in the film and leads to a character that cannot easily be classified as a hero or a villain. This is something that has never occurred in the history of the Biblical picture. Moses is a hero, Christ is a hero, and Samson is a hero. But this cinematic interpretation of Noah shows him as a lost, distraught man who was chosen by God to perform something that he truly regrets doing (Aronofsky himself described Noah as someone suffering from extreme survivor’s guilt). The film as a whole is exceptionally dark and does not at all offer any of the sentimental comforts of earlier Bible films. This is a picture where God’s wrath is unleashed upon people with families and loved ones, not faceless villains who must be eradicated.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the central antagonist of the picture, Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone), who provides excellent gravitas as a character who, to some degree, wants to be connected with God but has been condemned to a life without the possibility of feeling His presence (he is one of the descendants of Cain, who was banished to the East after he murdered Abel). Thus, the character that would be portrayed as a cold-blooded monster in a more romantic age is now seen as a man who is rebelling against the God who made him who he was. It’s this moral maelstrom that Aronofsky throws us into and he never once offers any easy answers; the wisdom that we get from the film and the final judgments that we make of each character is up to us to decide, and it is a tough decision to make no matter what.
While Noah is a difficult film to watch, it does offer a taste of possible things to come. Ridley Scott’s retelling of the Moses story, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is currently slated to be released on December 12th later this year. While there isn’t much information out about the film’s tone or the direction that the filmmakers are taking it, there is plenty of room for speculation as to how Scott will present this story. The previous incarnations of the book of Exodus have all shown the spectacle of the ten plagues and the intense dramatic relationship between Moses and Ramses, but Scott could potentially make the film darker by continuing what Aronofsky started by showing Moses (played by Christian Bale) as a deeply conflicted man who has to not only lead his people out of Egypt, but also endure the pain of standing against his brother Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton).
Though Scott will certainly turn in a spectacle driven drama, there is one problem that may or may not hamper the film’s success and that is that the Exodus story is one that has been told a number of times by now. Aronofsky, at the very least, was adapting a portion of the Bible that is rarely shown on screen, and so there is a novel aspect to Noah. Scott, however, has to find a way to make Exodus a film that can tell an old story in a new way. The dangers of being repetitious when it comes to religious stories can be seen in another Biblical film that was released this year; Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Son of God, a chronicle of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
This film is similar to Noah in that it has received negative reviews, but it has received very different criticisms than Aronofsky’s picture. While Noah is seen as an oddity that can at least be admired for its weirdness, Son of God is seen as just another Christ film that tells the same story that we’ve been told in many other movies. In essence, the fact that it offers nothing new is what has hurt the film the most (it currently holds a 22% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and it is something that Scott has to watch out for in regards to his film. While there is no doubt that Scott’s technical skills will shine through in Exodus, one wonders what spin he’ll put on Moses’s story that will both inspire the spirit and intrigue the mind.
The Bible has been a part of humanity for countless generations, and while it is up to everyone to decide for themselves whether they believe in its content or not, most find something of worth in their interpretation of it, whether it is good or bad. The Biblical picture is a fascinating means by which filmmakers are able to tell the parables of old, but the well of romanticism has run dry. Now, it seems, is just a good a time as any to show the other side of the coin, the side that shows man’s tumultuous relationship with God and how the path of righteousness is not always an easy one to follow. The season of the tender Biblical epic was needed and has now passed. What lies ahead may be harder to bear, but just as necessary to experience.
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