Film, Media and Music

Hollywood, Christians and the American Culture Wars

Mel Gibson’s controversial biblical epic, The Passion of the Christ (2004), failed to secure funding from a major studio, but still managed to turn significant profits (over $83 million just on the opening weekend against a production budget of $30 million). So too have auterist projects such as Darren Aronfsky’s Noah (2014) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) continued this religious run on the box office, as did Kevin Reynolds’ Risen (2016). In contrast, Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur (2016) bombed (as of early 2018, worldwide grosses have still yet to recoup a production budget of some $100 million). This chapter argues that there remains considerable life in the modern biblical epic, and that these films are generally most successful in bringing old stories to new audiences in the twenty-first-century cultural marketplace. But although such works enjoy a built-in Christian fan-base, this demographic alone is not enough to guarantee box office success. To turn a significant profit, the modern biblical epic also needs to court as much controversy as possible, and thereby capture the attention of the mainstream Hollywood audience, i.e. secular viewers at home and abroad.

in The Bible onscreen in the new millennium
Abstract only
Soft stardom, melodrama and the critique of epic masculinity in Ben-Hur (2016)

In this chapter, I argue that the 2016 Ben-Hur uses the template of its earlier iterations in conjunction with its reliance on a gentler type of epic heroic star to explore a new understanding of Christian masculinity. Gone is the hardness and inflexibility of Heston and Boyd, replaced with a softer, more beautiful Judah and a far more emotively rich Messala. Thus, this iteration of the story of the Jewish prince who learns Christian grace and forgiveness is a critique not just of its 1959 predecessor but also of the millennial cycle of epic films – Gladiator, Troy, 300 – and their attendant hard-bodied heroes. Rather than relying on a sort of Cold War/War on Terror brutal masculinity, this new Ben-Hur argues for a full embrace of an emotional, almost sentimental, form of Christian masculinity.

in The Bible onscreen in the new millennium
New heart and new spirit
Editor: Wickham Clayton

The extreme profitability of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004 came as a great surprise to the Hollywood establishment, particularly considering its failure to find production funding through a major studio. Since then the biblical epic, long thought dead in terms of widespread marketability, has become a viable product. These screen texts, primarily film and television features adapting stories from both the Old and New Testaments, have seen production both inside and outside of Hollywood. Seeking both profits and critical acclaim, as well as providing outlets for auteurist ‘passion projects’ such as Gibson’s film, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), these texts both follow previous biblical epic traditions, as well as appear distinct stylistically and thematically from the biblical epic in its prime. With 2018 seeing the highly publicised release of Mary Magdalene, an attempt at a feminist take on this controversial figure, as well as Gibson’s announcement that he is in production on a follow-up to The Passion of the Christ, there is no clear evidence that the steady production of biblical media will abate anytime soon. Therefore, academic consideration of the modern biblical epic is both timely and highly relevant. With contributions from scholars such as Mikel J. Koven, Andrew B. R. Elliott and Martin Stollery, and a preface from Adele Reinhartz, this collection aims to be a starting point for initiating this discourse.

Social contexts in L’Inchiesta and Risen

The Italian film L’Inchiesta (1987) and the American film Risen (2016) have many key situations in common, to the point that the American movie can be seen as a remake of sorts. However, both films have completely different endings: while Risen showcases the encounter between the Roman agent and Jesus, thus enthroning traditional religion, L’Inchiesta ends with the Roman agent’s descent into madness and consequent death, the truth forever obliterated. Further, both films are structured as biblical epics blended with the formula of trial films where investigations, interrogations and court scenes are essential, inherently interrogating what justice means. Keeping in mind that the films are biblical, reflections about justice and the nature of good and evil demand close examination. While divine justice trumps human justice in Risen, corrupted human justice trumps divine justice in L’Inchiesta. In this chapter, we point to the ways in which both films tap into social anxieties about religion and justice, following their own social and cultural contexts.

in The Bible onscreen in the new millennium
The Christian critical reception of elliptical Jesus narratives

This chapter reviews the critical reception of two films which depict fictional accounts of events in the life of Jesus by Christian reviewers and organisations. The Young Messiah (2016) has been positively received by Christian critics, even attaining the ‘Faith-Friendly’ seal of approval from The Dove Foundation, in spite of negative mainstream criticism. Last Days in the Desert (2015), despite having a major star attached, had a weaker distribution deal and was praised for cinematic quality by both mainstream and Christian critics, though more hesitantly recommended by Christian critics for having a somewhat uncertain relationship to institutionally approved faith. This exploration into faith-based reception will aid in the understanding of the relationship between the texts in this modern wave of biblical epics, and what Christians desire to see, stylistically and thematically, in clearly fictional explorations of their religion’s most sacred figures.

in The Bible onscreen in the new millennium

Garrel’s ‘adolescent’ period (1964–1969) began with a series of short films, reminiscent of the cinema of the New Wave, extending to more austere and engaged works that were made in the period surrounding May 68. The analysis traces Garrel’s increasing distinction from the cinema of the New Wave, and challenges a common perception that he was a willing inheritor of this movement. It considers how his experimental works draw meaning through their relationship with positions and formal strategies developed in the cinema of Guy Debord (détournement, critique of the spectacle, anti-cinema), and how this suggests a political stance that remains linked to events happening on the street. Consideration is equally given to the significance of Garrel’s development of a ‘concentrationary’ aesthetic, something that foregrounds the link between May 68 and the legacy of the Holocaust.

in Philippe Garrel

Garrel’s underground period (1969–1978) saw the release of seven films, all made in collaboration with his partner Nico (Christa Päffgen, 1938–1988). Rather than analysing these films as a single category, two subcategories are proposed. The first category is associated with wealth, when Garrel was able to draw upon the generous support of a donor, Sylvina Boissonnas. The second is associated with poverty, covering the latter part of this underground period when his work was self-produced with modest resources. The chapter considers the relationship between Garrel’s cinema and the American Underground, looking in particular at the connection with Warhol’s use of portraiture in films made during his first Factory period. The chapter also looks to the precepts of the Italian avant-garde Arte Povera as a way of interpreting the political significance of the poverist modes of production that Garrel developed latterly. It argues that the film-maker’s poverist modes suggest a continued fidelity to the dissidence and non-conformism of May 68.

in Philippe Garrel
Abstract only

The conclusion draws together the key themes addressed in the study and reflects on Garrel’s standing in French film culture today. Comparisons are drawn with the careers of Chantal Akerman and Jean Eustache.

in Philippe Garrel
Exploring tensions between the secular and the sacred in Noah, the ‘least biblical biblical movie ever’

Conservative commentators have long criticised the film industry’s alleged negative representations or outright rejection of religion, accusing Hollywood of promoting its own secular, liberal ideology regardless of the wishes of a predominantly faith-orientated audience. Within academia the study of religion and film is an emerging area of interest, one that remains dominated by writers working in the fields of theology, biblical studies and religious studies. Why is this? To what extent can secularisation theory be used as a way of understanding the historical lack of involvement of film studies scholars in the field? How might the controversy surrounding Noah’s perceived ‘atheist’ adaptation be used as a way of understanding broader tensions between religious and non-religious elements in Hollywood and the academy? Through analysis of the controversy surrounding the interpretation and adaptation of scripture in Noah, this chapter reflects on the position of film studies scholarship in the emerging and developing multidisciplinary field of religion and film.

in The Bible onscreen in the new millennium
Abstract only
Conversion narratives in the modern

The heroes of films such as Ben-Hur (1959), Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953) all undergo narrative arcs in which they convert to Christianity or experience life-changing encounters with Christ. In this action, they symbolically reject totalitarian powers in favour of domesticity and faith. By contrast, the majority of recent epics feature atheistic or pagan heroes who remain so throughout their respective narratives. However, with the arrival of Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Risen (2016) and Ben-Hur (2016), the biblical epic has now returned and with it the motif of the religious conversion narrative. The purpose of this chapter is to explore the modern biblical epic, how it differs from its immediate predecessors and how it connects to its generic forebears. By contrasting the films Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and Risen (2016), this chapter discusses the different ways in which conversion narratives have been used in the modern biblical epic, and in so doing shows how the modern epic is continuing to evolve while remaining inextricably linked to the epics of the 1950s–60s.

in The Bible onscreen in the new millennium