Books

Biblical films get the academic treatment

Mel Gibson on the set of The Passion of the Christ

Matt Thorne finds some insight amid the waffle

T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film
Edited by Richard Walsh, Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 465pp, £89

According to Richard Walsh, the editor of this book, we are living through a golden age of biblical film. Alongside the films themselves – and the examples he gives in his introduction are Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, both released in 2014 and neither of them much loved – there is, he suggests, a flourishing in the field of biblical film criticism.

The origins of biblical film criticism are, he argues, as old as film itself, because as soon as film-makers began to put religious imagery on-screen, some form of exegesis was required. Initially, he suggests, this concern was primarily homiletic, and the criticism, or at least commentary, was taking place even as the films were being made. He points out that early silent productions not only had religious advisers shaping the film, but also that the films themselves were often accompanied by explanatory lectures, drawing attention to the geographical, historical or cultural background elements of the film.

Walsh’s somewhat silly opening question – “How significant was [Mel] Gibson?” – indicates just how seriously he takes the Australian actor and director’s film The Passion of the Christ. It is the success of this film, it seems, that has made this book possible, and Walsh is keen to point out that it hasn’t always been an easy ride for those in his field. He considers “the fields of theology and religious studies” as “the often uncongenial parents of biblical film studies”. Extending his analogy to breaking point, he argues that “post-structural analysis, semiotic analysis and other ideological approaches” are biblical film studies’ “older siblings”.

The sense that Walsh is on slightly shaky ground is soon confirmed by the contents of this book. While there is much to be written about the depiction of biblical stories on-screen – as well as narratives inspired by the Bible – most of the authors collected here seem more focused on the film studies half of the equation, and many of these essays are sadly lacking in detail or depth.

One of the biggest problems is that all the essays appear to be written to the same length and structure, irrespective of whether the content demands it, with the end result that several essays seem overstretched, while others compress so much information into such a small space that they become almost incomprehensible.

The best writers (and essays) here are either aware of the limitations and make them a feature, or find a way of limiting their perspective so they can say something of value in a small space. Perhaps a better approach than inviting 31 random academics (some of whom seem barely to understand the brief) to write short essays might have been to select the best 15 writers and commission longer pieces.

Foremost among the better pieces is an essay by Adele Reinhartz on “Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow: Noah’s Flood in Recent Hollywood Films”. Reinhartz has made the worthwhile observation that most biblical films focus primarily on the same few books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Kings, Esther, Ruth, Job, the Gospels and Revelation – and not just this selection of texts but also a US Christian cultural interpretation of them. For this essay, Reinhartz makes a useful limitation of her own, focusing on three recent Hollywood films that make explicit reference to this biblical story. Aronofsky’s Noah is the most faithful, though not without some controversial embellishments, while the other two films she looks at – Evan Almighty and Moonrise Kingdom – are a comedy and arthouse movie respectively that draw inspiration from the story in different ways.

It would be hard to come up with a more expert way of addressing her subject. It is a shame there is not an equivalent chapter on, say, films that have been inspired by (rather than directly addressing) the Book of Revelation. Among the many films absent from this book is Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, one of the greatest religious films ever made, moving from a questioning of born-again Christianity to a serious look at what it might mean to be fully separated from God’s love.

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The weaker essays include a study of biblical “comedies” in which the author quickly comes to the conclusion that “in general, comedy and the Bible seem to make strange bedfellows” – and several essays that look at films that seem to have no biblical connection at all. At times, it’s hard not to picture Walsh on the phone to some film studies person, saying, “Look, it doesn’t have to be that biblical,” or various professors speculatively emailing off irrelevant essays in the hope of boosting their research profile ratings.

That’s a shame, as this is a fascinating subject, and buried within the waffle there are some serious voices with worthwhile observations to make.