Friday, 6 November 2015

Imagining the Afterlife

Apologies for having neglected the blog somewhat lately - things have been very busy at work, but I haven't totally forgotten it!

One of the things keeping me busy is organising a conference to take place at Newman and the University of Birmingham next June. The conference is on 'Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World', and is part of a new project I'm working on about how people imagine the afterlife and how that relates (or doesn't) to real world afterlife beliefs. The conference will be inter-disciplinary and cover a broad range of topics relating to how people thought about the afterlife in the ancient world.

I'm planning to do some comparative work for this project, comparing modern Western depictions of the afterlife and how they relate to Christian afterlife belief with ancient depictions of the afterlife and how they relate to ancient beliefs. I may post a few related reviews here, some of which may not be Classical themselves, but useful points of comparison. Suggestions for useful books, films or TV episodes are welcome!

UPDATE: The conference programme is now in place here!

Thursday, 27 August 2015

10 Classics-themed beach reads

A few weeks ago, I contributed to a Den of Geek article providing geek-specific recommendations for beach reads, so I thought it would be fun to do the same with a Classics-based theme as well. I'm aware that most of us the Northern hemisphere have probably come back from our beach holidays already but never mind, it's never too early to start planning for next year!

Other than being good books, these recommendations are based largely on what I'm looking for in a beach read. Although Kindles have made it possible to read even the biggest George RR Martin tome wherever you want, I still think a beach read should ideally be relatively short, so that if you prefer to expose the paperback to sand, sea, salt, and (depending on the beach) rain it's not too huge, and you can reasonably expect to read the whole book during one short holiday.

I also quite like to read something appropriate to the environment when on a beach, so tend to avoid stories set in snow-bound mountains or similar, though again, this depends to an extent on the beach. (Classics-themed novels have an advantage there, of course, as Greece and Rome are quite warm - if you're European, chances are the beach you are on was once part of the Roman Empire).

And they should be reasonably light in tone for the most part, as convulsive crying because your favourite character has been tortured/sacrificed/behaved like a an idiot while reading on a public beach can be a little embarrassing. I've also restricted this list to novels, though I've often enjoyed reading non-fiction (especially travel literature) on a beach as well. There are a lot of mystery novels here, mostly because I like the genre, but also because the stories tend to be self-contained puzzles leading up to the satisfying conclusion of finding out whodunnit, so they work especially well as beach reads. (If you're wondering where my one of favourite Classics-based novels of all, I, Claudius, is, it was discounted for not being quite light enough in terms of readability - all those ancient-historian-inspired digressions - or weight, especially if you wanted both the novel and its sequel, Claudius the God).

I've been pretty broad in what counts as 'Classics-themed' here, so some of these are stories set entirely within the ancient world, while others just use Classical themes or include hints and elements of Classical mythology or culture.

10. The Evil That Men Do, by Nancy Holder

Between TVs in hotels, films on memory sticks, laptops, portable DVD players and so on, two-week holidays with no TV are much rarer than they used to be. But if you want something to read without requiring headphones on the beach, but find you're missing your TV, what better to bring than a TV tie-in novel?! I'm rather fond of official tie-in novels. Essentially fan fiction that's gone through a professional spell check, they're usually light, frothy and often good fun. This particular Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in novel comes with ancient Roman vampires, Bacchae and an amphitheatre - close your eyes to historical inaccuracy and enjoy.

9. Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris

I recommended Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries among my suggestions for geeky beach reads, and the same reasons still stand here - nice, hot setting, good pace, a fun and light read. The second, seventh and tenth books all have major Classical elements, and the seventh is one of my favourites, but I'm recommending this tenth volume as a really interesting representation of an ancient Roman character thrown into a modern context. If you haven't read any of these before and just want to give them a go the second book, Living Dead in Dallas, might be a better bet.

8. Poseidon's Gold, by Lindsey Davis

This is the fifth of Lindsey Davis' Roman detective stories told by private investigator Marcus Didius Falco. This story is lighter than the first few and stands more or less alone, and is set entirely in Rome  and Capua - no descriptions of wet and cold Britain or Germania here! It introduces Falco's father, a lively character, and features a plot revolving around stolen art and antiquities and is generally a good read and a pretty good introduction to the series if you haven't read any before (the first book, The Silver Pigs, is the one I think is the best, but doesn't reflect the slightly lighter tone of some of the later books so well).

7. The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still, by Malcolm Pryce

This is the latest entry in another series I'd recommended among the geeky beach reads. Not actually science fiction and fantasy, Malcolm Pryce's Chandler-esque pastiches set in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth are perfect if your type of beach holiday leans more towards windy walks on pebble beaches and bracing gales (as my childhood holidays did) than sand between your toes and bikinis. The downside is you'd be skipping to the end of the series, but the Classical parallels in this story - which features a Welsh Hercules and katabasis ice cream - are good fun.

6. Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor

This is the second full-length novel Steven Saylor wrote about Roman detective Gordianus the Finder (two volumes of short stories are set between the first and second novels, and he has now written two prequel novels). It's set around the Bay of Naples, which was a popular holiday resort for ancient Romans, so it makes great holiday reading, though the plot is pretty heavy in places. As only the second novel written, it doesn't require much foreknowledge of Gordianus or his family, so it's a pretty good place to jump in, though of course, the first novel to be written, Roman Blood, is equally good - but includes more Cicero. For me, that's a bad thing!

5. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I have frequently compared The Song of Achilles to Twilight, and I stand by that comparison. It's fan fiction of the Iliad (which I suppose makes it 50 Shades of Grey rather than Twilight itself, but I haven't read that). The descriptions of Achilles are ludicrously over-done - I know, in the author's defence, that he is literally a demi-god but I don't think we need to hear how gorgeous and god-like his appearance is every five minutes. Two thirds of the book are teenage romance, followed by a final third in which it finally gets to the Iliad and gets really quite good. But, as I've said before, I read and enjoyed Twilight, which does what it does perfectly well, and I enjoyed reading this, too. The easily flowing writing, sweet romantic theme and, in the last third, fast-paced action make this a perfect beach read.

4. The Charioteer of Delphi, by Caroline Lawrence

All of the Roman Mysteries make great beach reads and I have, indeed, read several of them on a beach (or boat in Croatia, as the case may be). They're perfect for a holiday in Greece, Spain or Italy - appropriate setting, short length and fast-paced since they're middle grade books, hinting at a darker reality but keeping the tone reasonably light, again, because they're aimed at child readers. Most of them can be read independently of the others as long as you don't mind spoiling a few plot developments, up until The Slave-girl From Jerusalem, after which the last few books do need to be read in order so you can follow the story arc. The Charioteer of Delphi is the last truly stand-alone of the books before that final group, and the conclusion is one of the most satisfying of all - plus it's got exciting descriptions of chariot racing, which would have been my favourite sport if I'd been an ancient Roman (looking back at my review, I know a lot more about sport than I did when I wrote it, and about various motor sports in particular! I'd totally have been into chariot racing if I'd lived in ancient Rome). My absolute favourite of the books in The Gladiators from Capua, but for a slightly lighter summer read, this is the one I'd recommend.

3. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

OK, so this may not entirely answer the 'light' qualification, I confess. In fact, the first time I read it, I stopped after ten pages and had to be persuaded to continue by the hearty recommendation of OldHousematetheRomeone, because it was too depressing. But as soon as I got to the end of the first chapter I was hooked, because it is very fast-paced, making excellent use of the ancient technique of writing in the vivid present in a story on one of my favourite themes, gladiators. If you want something you can really get stuck into to the detriment of paying attention to anything else while you're on holiday, this is a good choice (and I can add, from personal experience, that hanging around Birmingham airport for hours on end is a considerably less frustrating way to start your holiday if you have this to read).

2. Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), by Apuleius of Madaura

If you want to read something Classics-themed while you're away, why not read an actual ancient text? There are several ancient Greek romance novels involving pirates, kidnapping and main characters turning out to be African princesses, but I would always recommend this, the only complete surviving novel in Latin, sometimes known as The Golden Ass to distinguish it from Ovid's Metamorphoses (unfairly, I think - I enjoy reading this much more than anything by Ovid, Metamorphoses included. I don't care how beautiful his Latin is, I don't like his attitude). After a few isolated stories to kick us off, the main plot of the novel is about the trials and tribulations of Lucius, who is accidentally turned into a donkey while trying to turn himself into a bird. There's also a lengthy digression into one of the very few Greco-Roman myths with a happy ending. If you want some genuine and genuinely fun ancient literature to take to the beach, this is the one to go for.

1. Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

Discworld is another series I recommended among my geeky beach reads, and there are several Discworld novels with a heavily Classical theme. The most Classics-y novels, conveniently, are both stand-alone novels that can be read alone without needing to know anything about the rest of the series, Small Gods and Pyramids (also Eric, a spoof of Doctor Faustus which, of course, features the Discworld version of the Trojan War, but which is a much shorter, illustrated novel and part of the Rincewind sub-series). Both are brilliant. Pyramids is slightly earlier in the series, but since neither are part of a wider group that doesn't make much difference. There are two reasons I've *just* given Pyramids the edge here. One is that Small Gods is heavier on the philosophy (both within the text, as in, it features philosophers, and as a reading experience) so for 'light' beach reads, Pyramids fits slightly better. And the other is simply that, though both are brilliant, I prefer Pyramids. If you've ever taken a British driving test, it's certainly a must-read, but even without that, it's a fast-paced, fun and occasionally moving novel, and a pretty good introduction to the Discworld if you haven't read any before.

Although, as you can see, I'm quite fond of children's and Young Adult literature, it's probably noticeable that there's no Percy Jackson on this list. I'm afraid that's because I literally tried to read Percy Jackson while on a beach a couple of years ago and just couldn't get into it. I ended up reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole instead, which had a nice travel aspect even if not all of it fit the beach atmosphere! I'm sure I'll try Percy Jackson again some day.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

My Favourite Ancient Historical Movies and TV Shows

I'm going to be a guest panellist at Nine Worlds fan convention in London next week, which I'm getting quite excited about, as it looks like it should be a really fun event, and a nice break from textbook-writing, which is how I'm spending my summer (and the reason my poor blog has barely seen anything from me for weeks on end!). I'm speaking at the History and Supernatural tracks on the Saturday.

One of the panels I'm on is 'Favourite Historical Movies: what we like and why', in which four of us professional historians will be talking about - well, you can guess. We won't necessarily be talking about movies that deal with our particular area of research, and I can promise you that this article is not a spoiler for what I'm going to talk about next week, partly because I'm still trying to decide which of the many historical movies I love set in various different historical periods I want to talk about! But I thought it might help me to think about which of the many, many movies and TV shows I've watched featuring ancient Greece and Rome (or other areas of the ancient world) are my favourites, and why. And I realised that despite all the lists I've done over the years, I've never simply listed my favourites! So here they are. Though the whole list will probably have changed by tomorrow...

In an attempt to keep the list down to 10, I've only included things that might be described as 'period drama' and which are set entirely or mostly in the ancient world - so no Star Trek, no Hunger Games, no Stargate SG-1, no random Classical references hiding in The Lord of the Rings, no Narnia or Harry Potter - otherwise we'd be here all day).

Spoilers follow.

10. STARZ Spartacus (2010-2013)

Why do I love it? Spartacus is totally bonkers, but in its own way it's can be one of the most accurate depictions of ancient Rome you could wish for - the dialogue reflects the structure of Latin, the characters' attitudes are, for the most part, recognisably Roman and only on Spartacus can you see characters using an accurately reconstructed Roman public toilet. Of course, it's not all accurate - the many, many orgies, for example, are probably a bit over the top... but then, the whole show is completely, ridiculously, ludicrously over the top. Why doesn't anyone wear clothes? Like, at all? Ever?! But it's that utter ridiculousness - and pumping rock soundtrack - that makes it so much fun.

Favourite character: Gannicus. I love me some Crixus and Lucretia, but Gannicus is not only the only character in the whole show with a sense of fun, he's also the only one with two brain cells to rub together most of the time. Honourable mention for Surfer Caesar, who I desperately want to see more of. Come on Steven DeKnight, there's decades more of Caesar's history just waiting to be given the Spartacus treatment!

Favourite moment: Season Two (Spartacus: Vengeance) is the weak link in the series, as it meanders about a bit trying to find its way before Caesar and Crassus arrive to kick things into gear in Season Three, but the moment in Episode 5 when the grand arena that had been such a focal point in Season One and the prequel goes up in flames is quite something.

Quotable: I am for wine, and the embrace of questionable women! (Gannicus)

9. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)

Why do I love it? Zeffirelli's hyper-realistic approach to his material doesn't always work for me - I prefer my Shakespeare a bit more theatrical, for example - but I do appreciate it in this polished and well presented Jesus movie. What really makes it a favourite, though, is the incredible score by Maurice Jarre, which is sweeping, epic and moving. Robert Powell's performance as Jesus, while a bit wide-eyed in places, is also great and it's fun celebrity-spotting in the all-star cast.

Favourite character: Well, Jesus I guess. But I also have a great fondness for Peter Ustinov's wonderfully drawlly performance as Herod the Great (his delivery of 'you maaay saaaay triiiibe' is fabulous) and Rod Steiger's weary Pontius Pilate.

Favourite moment: The whole thing is beautifully shot and modelled after any number of famous paintings, but the moment when Jesus walks in to see Pilate after the whipping, wearing the crown of thorns and haloed (I see what he did there) in light is particularly beautiful.

Quotable: It's mostly Bible quotes so... you know, all the stuff about loving your neighbour and so on. Pontius Pilate says 'Ecce homo - Behold the man!' in Latin for no other reason than the cultural cache of the phrase 'ecce homo', which is quite amusing.

8. The Eagle (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2011)

Why do I love it? I... I... I just really like Channing Tatum, OK?! And Jamie Bell. And it's beautifully shot, and well paced, and... I just really like Channing Tatum.

Favourite character: Jamie Bell's Esca is fabulously sulky. Not that he doesn't have good reason to be, what with being enslaved and all.

Favourite moment: I'm quite fond of the way our heroes limp out together right at the end.

Quotable: 'How can a piece of metal mean so much to you?' (Esca)

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Why do I love it? I love that Pasolini (mostly) sticks to one specific source and films that version. It's not that any screen version can ever reproduce the text exactly, but I like the idea that what we're seeing is, as far as possible, the writer of Matthew's version as interpreted by the director, rather than the director's/writer's choice of random selections from different things. You hardly ever see that in historical movies at all, never mind Jesus movies!

Favourite character: Well, again, Jesus... who is distractingly sexy in this version.

Favourite moment: The moment when Jesus tells the leper he just cured not to tell anyone, and in the background we see the former-leper run off waving his arms around excitedly and clearly telling everyone he meets. It's really funny!

Quotable: This film is literally all Bible quotes, mostly from Matthew's Gospel. So, you know, pick a quote. Something nice about love.

6. Rome (BBC/HBO, 2005-2007)

Why do I love it? Amazing production values from set to costume to music, awesome opening sequence, great acting (especially from Max Pirkis as young Octavian and I love James Purefoy as Mark Antony), humour, drama... Rome isn't perfect (it drags in places in Season One and I wasn't as struck on Vorenus and Pullo's story as I was on the actual historical stuff) but it's very, very good.

Favourite character: It's a tie between Mark Antony and Octavian. Though, just as in history, Octavian might just edge it. Both Pirkis and Simon Woods play him as so wonderfully intense, intelligent, Machiavellian and yet just a bit socially shy and uncomfortable and aware of his own oddness. It's a wonderful take on the character. I also love Allen Leech's nervous, nerdy take on Marcus Agrippa.

Favourite moment: Probably the execution of Cicero. Not because I hate Cicero that much (though I really don't like him) but because David Bamber's performance is so good.

Quotable: 'Early stages of an orgy!' (Agrippa trying to defend Octavia to her mother)

5. Hercules (Disney, 1997)

Why do I love it? How many of the songs would you like me to sing to you?

Favourite character: Meg is the other reason I love this movie. She's just awesome, which is why I inflict 'I won't say I'm in love' on my students every. single. year.

Favourite moment: The whole of 'I won't say I'm in love'. It's possible I over-identify with that song.

Quotable: 'You! Are wearing! His! MERCHANDISE?!' (Hades)

4. Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973)

Why do I love it? Not only is Jesus Christ Superstar one of my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (along with The Phantom of the Opera), this film version is brilliantly put together with spectacular performances from Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson as Jesus and Judas respectively, as well as great work from Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and Josh Mostel as Herod Antipas.

Favourite character: See above. Saying 'Judas' feels odd, but he is also a brilliant character. And I do love Dennan's sneering Pontius Pilate.

Favourite moment: In the middle of Neeley's heart-wrenching rendition of 'Gethsemane', as the music breaks into dramatic chords, we see a series of classical paintings of the crucifixion which somehow get the torture and horror of it across more effectively than all the buckets of blood in The Passion of the Christ.

Quotable: So many great lyrics, including Pilate's fabulous 'Who is this broken man / cluttering up my hallway?' and Herod's 'Prove to me that you're no fool / walk across my swimming pool', not to mention the hilarious line sung by the disciples in the Last Supper scene, 'what's that in the bread? / It's gone to my head'. But for simple drama and emotion, Jesus screaming 'Just watch me die! / See how I die!' is hard to beat.

3. Monty Python's Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979)

Why do I love it? There are so many, many reasons (the Latin lesson from a Roman soldier, the very precise period setting of 'Saturday Afternoon - Around Teatime', the people at the back who can't hear the Beatitudes, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life...) but let's just sum them all up as: it's hilarious.

Favourite character: Brian, probably. Or the guy about to be stoned to death who points out it can't really get worse and starts yelling 'Jehovah! Jehovah!'

Favourite moment: I absolutely love the sequence where Brian falls off a tower, gets caught by a passing spaceship, is briefly involved in a space battle with aliens, then crash-lands right below the exact same tower. I've been to the tower, too. Lovely place.

Quotable: 'He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!' (Brian's mother)

2. Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)

Why do I love it? This is one of my favourite films of all time. The epic sweep of it, the cinematography, Hans Zimmer's fantastic music, Joaquin Phoenix's wicked performance as Commodus, Juba's final 'Not yet'... it's all awesome.

Favourite character: Djimon Hounsou's Juba. He's remarkably upbeat considering his circumstances.

Favourite moment: You know the one - this moment:

Quotable: 'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next' (Maximus. Obviously.)

1. I, Claudius (BBC, 1976)

Why do I love it? I, Claudius is one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and I watch it again and again. The performances are great, the story is compelling and it's just over the top enough to be brilliant without going quite as far as Rome or Spartacus.

Favourite character: It's got to be Sian Phillips' brilliant, evil, scheming, completely awesome Livia, though I'm also very fond of John Hurt's interpretation of Caligula and BRIAN BLESSED's put-upon Augustus.

Favourite moment: So, so many. But if anyone ever tells you Blessed does nothing but shout, show them Augustus' death scene. One of the most impressive bits of completely silent and almost motionless acting I've ever seen.

Quotable: 'Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus' (Claudius)

Argh - how was there no room for Carry on Cleo?! Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me...

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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

I read Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell years ago - I can't remember it very well at all, but I do remember that I loved it! I especially loved the Jane Austen-style prose (right down to the spellings) and all the academic-history-style footnotes, which were brilliant. This isn't the only novel to use footnotes of course - all the Discworld novels have them - but the way these were constructed, as fake academic references, was particularly fun.

The BBC's seven-part TV adaptation of the novel just finished, and it was very good - it'll sit happily on my shelf next to Gormenghast and The Chronicles of Narnia (it shares one of the stars, Samuel West - a very nice actor who once took me and my friends out for a beer, and who played King Caspian in the BBC's Voyage of the Dawn Treader). I especially liked Lady Pole's description of the Gentleman's hair as looking like 'thistle-down' towards the end, reflecting his constant epithet in the book. I also loved how the Raven King looked just like Christopher Lee from The Wicker Man - not coincidentally, a reference to idea of survivals of Druidic, ancient magical rites in the UK.

Most of the magic in the story comes from Nothern European folklore, particularly relating to Faerie, to changelings and other worlds and 'Christians' kidnapped from their homes. I'm not much of an expert on folklore that dates later than AD 400, but I suspect the repeated references to 'English' magic at least partially reflect the folklore it's based on, as well early nineteenth century English imperialism. I think it's a mixture of Celtic (particularly Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish, and maybe Breton) myth and folklore, and possibly some Anglo-Saxon and more broadly French elements that might go into the mix to create particularly 'English' magic. There's also an emphasis on the North of England as the home of magic, possibly suggesting a stronger Celtic and possibly Viking influence, and less French. (Did anyone else get distracted by mental images of Robb Stark every time they said 'King in the North'? And don't get me started on trying to kill off Thoros of Myr...!)

There are a few Classical elements included though. Vinculus has a Latinate name, which makes me wonder if there's an implication that 'English' magic goes back further than Normans or Vikings or Anglo-Saxons or even the Romano-British Celts left behind when the Romans left - although the Latin name suggests Romans, the fact that the story is set in Britain perhaps implies a Druidic influence there (not that Vinculus is necessarily intended to be an ancient Roman or Druid - though it wouldn't surprise me if he was - but the magic inscribed on his body is perhaps Romano-British or Druidic in its ultimate origin, the magic the Raven King originally drew on).

The Gentleman also knows his Classics, as he shows in the spell he puts on Stephen Black and Lady Pole to stop them from telling anyone about him. The nonsense they speak is a rather nice and thematic re-telling of fairytales from the fairies' point of view, as Honeyfoot and Segundus eventually realise, though somehow no one seems to realise they are all about fairy abductions, and do in fact explain what Lady Pole and Stephen are trying to say, in a roundabout way. But what Segundus sees when he looks at them is a twist on a Classical motif - a rose on their mouths. In Rome, 'sub rosa' meant in secret (which is why Steven Saylor's series of novels about Gordianus the Finder are subtitled Roma Sub Rosa), and this use persisted into English, either remembered or rediscovered during the Renaissance. So a rose over someone's mouth means they are keeping a secret of some kind, or being forced to do so. The Gentleman may simply have known the English use of the term, but it certainly has a Classical origin.

One of Jonathan Strange's spells also has its roots in Classical literature. During the Napoleonic War, in Portugal, Strange reanimates the corpses of some dead soldiers in order to get some information. This use of necromancy for information-gathering is highly Classical, and in particular is reminscent of the gory scene in Lucan's Civil War in which the witch Erictho raises the corpse of a dead soldier to obtain a prophecy (supposedly about the future of Sextus Pompey, though the dead soldier is more interested in prophesying and talking about the underworld in general). As in the series, the corpse is decaying and disgusting, but the dead have knowledge the living do not.

These are just hints and echoes of the Classical world in a story much more concerned with the
history of England since the Norman conquest. It is possible that Clarke and the TV crew were not concerned with using or referring to the Classical world at all. However, the fact that these echoes of the ancient world bleed through, surviving years of history to remain influential, is testament to the enduring impact of the ancient world on the modern, even when we can't see it directly.

Edited to add: As my colleague Louisa Mellor at Den of Geek points out, there's also a definite Orpheus and Eurydice vibe to Jonathan and Arabella's story.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Game of Thrones, Season Five

This post contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Game of Thrones, all published books, possibly published snippets from as-yet-unpublished books, material from online interviews, fan theories - it's a veritable spoiler-fest, is what I'm saying.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, it's clear that Season Five was the most Classics-y season of Game of Thrones yet, and all the more awesome for it.

Most obviously, of course, this season we got GLADIATORS! As many of you know, I am an absolute sucker for a good gladiator story. I love them. I can't get enough of them. I should probably worry about what that says about me as a person. But anyway, what's the one thing that could make a gladiator story even more awesome than it already is? DRAGON.

I was so happy with the way the TV series adapted Ser Jorah and Tyrion's story this season, which for me was much more effective than the books. Everyone involved has clearly seen Gladiator as many times as I have, and used it to frame their story, to great effect. And so we got the warm-up gladiator sequence, in a small fighting pit with fewer deaths and more optimism as Jorah fought his way to stand in front of his Queen/love of his life once more. That gave us the wonderful moment, as yet unreached in the books, when Tyrion and Dany finally came face to face and the various plot threads of the whole enormous saga finally started to converge.

It wasn't over yet though, as this was all build up for this year's Episode 9 Grand Climax. Like the earlier, smaller episode, this featured shots lifted directly from Gladiator, starting with a glorious pan over the huge amphitheatre - the book's description of fighting 'pits' wisely ignored in favour of the more spectacular Roman theatrical look. Then it's into the fight, and the drama plays out in a much more satisfying way than in the book. Where Book Dany inadvertently saved an unknown Tyrion from a death he didn't fully realise was planned for him, here Dany watches Jorah, a man she loves (even if not in the same way that he loves her) embark on a suicide mission (the audience knowing, as she doesn't, that he is already dying from greyscale). I was on tenterhooks with every look that passed between them - I love this couple and was so happy to see them sharing screen time again. With the series going so drastically off book and killing numerous characters still alive in the source material, it was also the first gladiator fight I've watched in a long time in which I genuinely didn't know what the outcome would be (Spartacus is hardly going to lose in his first fight, for example).

Then there's that heart-stopping moment when Jorah throws his spear towards the royal box. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose brain did a confused somersault for a few seconds. This shot comes straight out of Kubrick's Spartacus, in which Draba attacks Crassus et al in their box rather than kill Spartacus, the act that sets off the rebellion. In a twist here, Jorah is not aiming at Dany, but at a Son of the Harpy coming up from behind her to attack - here, the rebellion is already happening and he is trying to stop it. Then comes the moment when he offers her his hand and she takes it - a symbolic gesture that seems to me to indicate that she has finally forgiven him. As an incurable sappy romantic, for me it was the most satisfying moment in the show since Jaime jumped into that bear pit back in season three. And so Drogon swoops in to rescue Dany from imminent death, leaving her friends looking up in awe, and one very happy viewer who, wandering around the actual Colosseum two days later, was left half convinced every seagull was really a dragon.

Dragon-spotting at the Colosseum last week. Drogon sadly failed to make an appearance.

This wasn't the only Classical theme in this season, though. Stannis Baratheon learned the hard way that sacrificing one's daughter to the gods rarely ends well, though in his case he learned it a lot more quickly than Agamemnon did (after sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis and get the winds he needed to sail for Troy). I loved the detail that Selyse broke before the end, trying to save her daughter and giving in to despair when she couldn't. Selyse Baratheon is no Clytemnestra - she was fine with this plan up to the last moment, and whereas Stannis had shown his daughter a lot of affection over the years, she had shown none. Her last second change of heart might be part of a rather irritating notion that women are especially vulnerable to the suffering of children, seen in Episode 8 in which the new, very likeable character Karsi dies because she can't bring herself to fight off zombies if they happen to be in children's bodies. But I like Selyse's sudden attack of conscience - it's a sign of just how horribly far Stannis has gone, and her ultimate fate is reminiscent of another Greek tragedy, as Creon's son and then his wife commit suicide following his condemnation of his son's fiancee Antigone, leaving him to realise just how terrible the consequences of his own stubbornness have been.

In ancient literature, while Iphigenia stayed dead in some versions of the story, in others she was miraculously saved by the goddess and whisked away to Tauris. Given the horror which greeted Shireen's death among fans, it's not hard to see why. In Shireen's case, it's unlikely that a miraculous escape is in the offing - Game of Thrones doesn't generally work that way, and her blood-curdling screams were as good as a dead body in terms of finality. But that brings us to the other major Classical moment of this season - the death of Jon Snow.

The assassination of Jon Snow is clearly set up and filmed to echo the death of Julius Caesar, as a group of men, some of whom were close allies, some of whom he'd pardoned for earlier opposing him, surround him and stab him to death. I swear, when Olly came up to deliver the final blow, I fully expected him to say 'And you, boy?' or 'You too, Olly?' or words to that effect. He stuck to just 'Olly?' in the end, but the point was more or less made. Then falls Caesar.

We're now left with a bizarre sort-of-cliffhanger. Jon Snow in the books is not permanently dead - Melisandre is right there, he can warg into Ghost, and George RR Martin has almost good as confirmed that we haven't seen the last of him in interviews. However, Benioff, Weiss and Kit Harington are all absolutely insistent that Jon Snow in the TV show is really, properly, definitely dead. It wouldn't be the first time a character raised from death in the books stayed dead on the show - Lady Stoneheart is still nowhere to be seen, and Mance Rayder appears much more definitely dead. But does it make sense?

Everything in this season and the preceding seasons seems to be building up to Jon Snow being resurrected by Melisandre. She comments on Beric Dondarrion's resurrections, she takes a great interest in Jon, she returns to the Wall just in time for the assassination. We also got a series of heavy-handed hints that R+L=J in Episode 4 of this season, which is all pointless if Jon is dead. (Unless, I suppose, Melisandre plans to use his blood for something, but that's fast running away into the snow. Perhaps she'll do some kind of spell over his dead body, with Jon himself the sacrifice?). Why set all that up and then ignore it?

I'll be sorely disappointed if Jon stays dead, not just because I'll miss Kit Harington (though, that too) but because it doesn't make narrative sense. Now obviously, in real life, death does not always make narrative sense and that's something Martin has consciously tried to replicate in his story, most notably in the death of Robb Stark. But the parts of history that we are the most keen to re-tell in dramatic form are, unsurprisingly, the parts with a strong narrative. Julius Caesar's death was a real event, but it also makes a great story, because he left behind a power vacuum into which Mark Antony and Octavian both tried to step, fighting it out until one survived. Robb Stark's death did something similar, taking one more candidate out of the War of the Five Kings and leaving Stannis and the Lannisters to continue their struggle to reign supreme.

But what does Jon Snow's death do? It leaves us with no one to follow or care about at the Wall except Melisandre, Davos, Tormund and Dolorous Edd. Of these, only Davos is really plausible as a key point of view character, and he can't take over the Watch. Are we going to watch two seasons of Alliser Thorne and Dolorous Edd fighting White Walkers? Are Sansa and Theon going to turn up, arm themselves and start leading the Watch? Actually, that'd be kind of awesome. But still, I find it hard to see a version of this story that provides a satisfying payoff to years of build up that doesn't have Jon Snow in it, what with him being the Ice of Ice and Fire, after all. Real history and narrative are, in the end, different things, and a narrative that tries too hard to be realistic in its randomness may prove ultimately unsatisfying as a drama. Classical historians knew that, and were fairly shameless about moving real events around for dramatic effect when they needed to. It remains to be seen whether Benioff and Weiss will understand the need for some kind of payoff, or whether they have a way to finish off this story without one half of the two central protagonists. Personally, I have my doubts about that, but only time will tell.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Five Interesting Portrayals of Pontius Pilate

I know, I disappear for over a month and then come back with more Jesus films. But since it's Holy Week, this seemed a good time to collect some of my favourite portrayals of Pontius Pilate, an historical figure who often doesn't get much attention because, well, he's not really the focal point of the films and shows he appears in.

One of the things that I think makes Pilate interesting is that the main historical sources for him are all either Christian or Jewish, so we end up with only a very particular perspective on him, generally from outsiders with varying levels of hostility. One thing we can definitely say about him is that, despite being governor of Judaea for ten years according to Josephus, he did not get on well with the Jewish population at all - that much all the sources seem to agree on!

The main Jewish sources are Philo's On the Embassy to Gaius, a record of an embassy Philo joined along with other Jews from Alexandria in Egypt to ask the Emperor Caligula to do something about the Egyptian governor Flaccus, who was mistreating them in various ways, and Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews written in Greek after Josephus went over to the side of the Romans during the Jewish Wars and got in with the Emperor Vespasian by correctly predicting he would become Emperor before it happened.

Both Philo and Josephus record that Pilate had some kind of Roman shields set up in the Temple at Jerusalem, which was of course completely sacrilegious from the Jewish point of view. (Most cults and religious groups in the Roman empire worshiped multiple gods and worshiping one didn't prevent anyone from worshiping another, but the Jews were much stricter monotheists and refused to worship any other god but theirs, which caused varying levels of tension at different times - though they had no interest in trying to convert anyone else to their religion, so this was less of a problem that it was later with the Christians). Josephus claims Pilate bowed to the pressure while Philo says the Emperor Tiberius had to write to him to tell him to behave, but either way, there seems to have been no love lost between the leading Jews in Jerusalem and Pilate. Josephus also records riots caused by Pilate using sacred money to build an aqueduct, and he was eventually recalled to Rome after a disturbance with the Samaritans.

The four canonical Christian Gospels are much more favourable towards Pilate than Josephus and especially Philo. All four blame the death of Jesus on the Jewish chief priests and elders, and absolve Pilate of guilt to varying degrees, presumably in an attempt to appeal to a pagan Roman readership by shifting the blame entirely on to the Jews and absolving the Romans. One thing that does seem clear from all the sources, though, is that Pilate and Judaea were simply not a good combination - between the incident with the shields and general violence referred to by Philo and Josephus, the reference to his previously bad relationship with the Jewish king Herod Antipas in Luke, the references to Barabbas being in prison for murder and rioting 'in the insurrection' (Luke and Mark; John says he was a robber) and the general implication that he might be persuaded to execute someone for fear of upsetting the crowd, it seems that if we can take one fairly clear fact away from all this, it's that Jerusalem under Pilate's governorship was not a happy place.

Of course, films and TV shows that portray Pilate tend not to be so interested in any of that (and whether any of them have read Philo or Josephus is doubtful - certainly their main sources are the canonical Christian Gospels). Following the Gospels, Pilate is generally portrayed as considerably less to blame for the death of Jesus than the Jewish elders, but the extent to which he is portrayed as a concerned, philosophical type, a disinterested Roman or just a guy having a trying day varies enormously. These are five of the most interesting takes on him.

5. Frank Thring, Ben-Hur

The interesting thing about the characterisation of Pilate in Ben-Hur is that nearly all of it is achieved in a short scene entirely unconnected to the story of Jesus.

We always know, when watching a Jesus film, that Pilate is a Roman. He may be presented to the audience as Self (a figure with whom they can identify, placing us as the practical Romans against the Othered Sanhedrin) or as Other (encouraging the audience to identify with Jesus and the Jews other than the chief priests, and see the Romans as a potentially dangerous enemy). Often he is a combination of the two; drawing on the Gospels' attempt to present Pilate as Self to their Roman readership and the Jews, especially the chief priests who are painted entirely as the bad guys, as Other but also maintaining a more general Othering of the ancient and sometimes barbaric Romans who thought crucifixion was an appropriate way to execute people.

Ben-Hur stands out, however, for introducing Pilate not as the authority figure who holds the hero's life and death in his hands, but as a fairly normal and somewhat snobby Roman we meet at a party in Rome itself. Since Jesus is not the protagonist of Ben-Hur, we are able to meet Pilate in very different circumstances, enjoying himself at a friend's party for his newly adopted son. We learn that he is not happy about being sent to Judaea, and he complains about the climate. This is something Roman characters usually do when they are sent to Britain because they hate the cold and the rain - in this case, Pilate wanted Alexandria and apparently feels that the deserts of Judaea will be substantially more unpleasant than the Nile delta. He is condescending and disdainful concerning the 'prophets and Jehovah' he expects to find in Judaea and generally unhappy about the whole thing.

Pilate appears again in the chariot race scene, over-seeing proceedings and forcibly reminding everyone present that they all belong to Rome. He greets Ben-Hur as a fellow Roman and calls him 'the people's one true god, for the time being', representing the low point of Ben-Hur's journey away from his roots and into a dangerous obsession with vengeance.

All of this serves to ensure we have a full sense of Pilate's character before his crucial scene, which is even shorter than the version in Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew discussed below. Ben-Hur and his family return from a leper colony to find the streets deserted and are told everyone is at the trial - Pilate himself has no dialogue but merely washes his hands with a supercilious expression on his face, the audience presumed to understand what's going on and know the context. The earlier scene sets up enough of his character for us to understand what's going through his head at that moment. But it also presents us with an unusually human view of Pilate as neither wannabe philosopher nor cold Roman authority, but simply a rather snobby member of the elite who doesn't understand the first thing about the people he's governing and isn't really interested. It's probably one of the more historically accurate portrayals around.

4. Alessandro Clerici, The Gospel According to Matthew

The most fascinating thing about the portrayal of Pilate in Pasolini's film is that, like Thring in Ben-Hur, he's hardly in it.

For most of the film, Pasolini follows the Gospel of Matthew pretty closely - one of the things that makes his take on the story stand out is the way he presents one particular source's version of the story rather than the amalgam of the most memorable bits you get in most Jesus films. But when we come to the crucial scene of the trial of Jesus, suddenly Pasolini departs from Matthew almost all together, while at the same time distancing the viewer from Pilate in a way no other Jesus films that I can think of do (even Ben-Hur features a shot from behind Pilate, placing us briefly with him in the scene).

Pasolini shows Jesus' trial through the eyes of John, who according to his own Gospel was there because he knew someone - none of the other Gospels mention this. Perhaps Pasolini wanted to follow the eyewitness account, but I don't think this was the primary reason. Not only does he leave out the details specific to Matthew's Gospel (Pilate's wife's dream, Pilate literally washing his hands of the case) but he also leaves out Pilate's question in all four Gospels, 'Are you a king?' The scene is extremely brief and to the point, with Pilate offering the choice of Jesus or Barrabas only to the Jewish elders and then dismissing everyone saying 'I am innocent of this man's blood'. We only see him at a distance, barely in focus, looking past the backs of people's heads as John is, having come into a trial clearly already in progress.

The effect is primarily to completely Other Pilate. We are an outsider, looking in with John. We see close-ups of Jesus' eyes, bringing us back briefly to his point of view, and we are with John and Mary, but at no point do we see any of this scene from a Roman point of view. Later we will see more of some of the soldiers at the cross, but this process of the Roman trial (following the chief priests' earlier one) is perfunctory and alienating. Presumably this is part of Pasolini's realism and his desire to show Jesus as a man of the people. Pilate, the representation of Imperial Rome, is impersonal, barely characterised, uninterested. It's a fascinating approach to a character who usually holds much more weight in other versions of the story.

3. Michael Palin, Monty Python's Life of Brian

Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate is, of course, somewhat different to the others listed here. He's primarily a simple figure of fun, with a terrible lisp and good friends called Biggus Dickus and Nauteus Maximus. He is, though, noticeably a Roman figure of fun, with nude paintings from Pompeii on the walls of his palace. Romans are often presented as Self in Life of Brian, rolling their eyes at the stoning of a man for saying 'Jehovah' and generally just trying to get on with their jobs (like another of Palin's characters, who so pleasantly tells people to line up for their crucifixion). Pilate, however, is one of the more Othered and exoticised Romans, representing the Rome of film and television in a way most of the soldiers don't through the art on his walls and his costuming.

Still, there is a little more to the Python version of the trial scene than just mocking those with a speech impediment. In his travel documentary Sahara, when he re-visited the ninth century Islamic fortress that provides the location of the trial both here and in Jesus of Nazareth, Palin talked about how much he liked the way Pilate's authority is brought down by laughter, the crowd defying the might of Rome by laughing at it.

This is also an interesting and refreshing depiction of the mob. Jesus Christ Superstar emphasises the fickleness of the crowd reported in the Gospels, who will glorify a man one week and demand his crucifixion the next (they don't talk much about the fact that in between these two events, he started some kind of riot in the Temple and over-turned all the bankers' tables, which might have had something to do with it). Other depictions, like Jesus of Nazareth, show the people being manipulated by the Jewish elders who persuade them all to vote for Barabbas to be set free. Here, however, the crowd are actually largely apathetic. They are simply looking for entertainment, and their choice of who they want saved is entirely down to which name sounds the funniest when Pilate tries to pronounce it. These are the disenfranchised masses looking for bread and circuses so famously described in Juvenal's satire, and Pilate is no more than a figure of fun to them, a circus. They are almost completely detached from the politics of the situation.

We've got a general election coming up soon - it remains to be seen which version of the mob we'll collectively resemble the most...

2.  Barry Dennen, Jesus Christ Superstar

The thoughtfulness of Pilate in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice's musical is established early on when the dream Matthew says Pilate's wife had the night before Jesus was brought to him is given to Pilate himself instead. This version of the dream includes visions of the future of Christianity, and Barry Dennen infuses the song with a wonderful mix of sadness and a mildly self-interested horror at the idea of millions of people 'leaving me the blame'.

Pilate's re-introduction at Jesus' trial is quite different; approaching from on high accompanied by images of Roman eagles and dressed up like a king himself, in purple and wearing a gold laurel wreath, he embodies earthly power. He manages to be even more supercilious than Thring - Dennen's delivery of 'Who is this broken man / cluttering up my hallway?' is a thing of beauty. He seems very Othered - but the audience have seen the more thoughtful dream sequence, which provides a particular interpretation of his motivation for sending Jesus to Herod as he does in Luke's Gospel. This incident isn't always dramatised, and when it is Pilate is usually trying to avoid being blamed for Jesus' death by the crowd, knowing how popular Jesus is and, as in every version and indeed in history, concerned about the possibility of riots. Here, we understand this as Pilate trying to shift the blame of history, rather than immediate mob, on to Herod rather than himself, making this a slightly more philosophical action more than a practical one (since the crowd in Jerusalem have turned against Jesus here).

Pilate's final appearance combines these traits. He starts out trying to continue to appear superior but clearly unnerved by the growing crowd, slipping into desperation to help Jesus as he cradles his bleeding body after the flogging, and culminating in the powerful image of him literally washing Jesus' blood off his hands in a glass bowl, shot from underneath. His lyrics sum him up - 'We all have truths / Are mine the same as yours?', and 'He's mad / Ought to be locked up / But that is not a reason to destroy him!' This is one of the most three dimensional Pilates around, and Dennen's performance embodies snobbery, disdain, fear, empathy and guilt beautifully.

1. Rod Steiger, Jesus of Nazareth

OK, I confess, Rod Steiger is my number 1 not so much because this is a particularly academically interesting portrayal, but because it's a personal favourite of mine. Steiger's performance is wonderful; subtle, nuanced, weary and strangely charismatic. Reading the extra voices in the Passion reading last Sunday, it was all I could do not to do an impersonation of the way he says, 'Are you a king?' (Though that's nothing compared to the difficulty of resisting the urge to do a John Wayne impression on 'Truly this man was the Son of God').

Steiger and Zeffirelli's Pilate is a man on the edge. As he rides into shot, he is already being hounded by a mob wanting Barabbas released, and he repeatedly says how tired he is, Zeffirelli carefully setting him up as a weary man with a difficult job whose options are limited. This is for the most part very much a representation of Pilate as Self - we the audience are encouraged to see ourselves in a hard-working man who doesn't understand the Jewish priests and their customs, or the desires of the mob.

This is a very thoughtful Pilate. He questions Jesus with a mixture of disdain and sincerity, and appears to be genuinely reluctant to crucify him. It's implied that the custom of releasing one prisoner at the Passover is not one he feels especially bound to obey, but he does it in the hopes of having Jesus released without angering the chief priests. He seems almost hurt by the reminder that the Jews will be 'defiled' if they enter a Roman building during Passover. It's a Pilate we as the audience are very much encouraged to identify with, someone who comes across as sensible  and practical. We are only really reminded of his Other status as a Roman when his second in command says Barabbas is an enemy of Rome and he looks thoughtfully at Jesus and wonders who the real enemy is (presumably a reference to the Gibbon-led idea that Christianity was ultimately responsible for the fall of Rome).

I doubt Steiger's Pilate is much like the real Pilate, who seems to have been more inclined to stir up trouble than desperately try to avoid it if Philo and Josephus are right, and more likely to ignore religious customs than take a philosophical interest in them. But as a representation of the Pilate we see in the Gospels, Steiger's downtrodden governor is hard to beat.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

I'm trying to practice my limited Italian before going to Rome this summer, so to help me out, Mum and Dad kindly bought me Pasolini's classic 1964 film for my birthday, which I hadn't seen before.

Although I'm familiar with various choral versions of particular Gospels (I seem to remember singing Bach's St John's Passion with the university choir once) most of the Jesus films I'm familiar with (Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Passion of the Christ - oh, and The Life of Brian) blend elements from all four Gospels into one. Over the years, I've sometimes rather forgotten which bits belong to which Gospel, so it's really interesting to see just one of them set out here. Even some elements I did remember as being particular to one Gospel were fascinating to see fully separated out. I know that the Nativity story exists only in Matthew and Luke, and that Matthew covers Joseph's dream, Herod and the wise men, while Luke includes Mary, Gabriel, no room at the inn and the shepherds, but after decades of school Nativity plays, it's very strange to actually see only the Matthean parts of it without the Luke bits.

Pasolini does very slightly veer from strict adherence to Matthew at the end, as John is clearly present at the crucifixion, a detail recorded in no uncertain terms by John but not by the others. Jesus' cross is also inscribed with JNRJ, more usually rendered INRI - an abbreviation for 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews' (the Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iud├Žorum), a notice John's Gospel states was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and put up on Pilate's orders (John 19:19; as far as I can remember, only The Passion of the Christ has actually shown a sign with all three languages on it, partly because it has to be quite large and the writing quite small). Matthew's Gospel mentions the sign, but quotes it as saying 'this is Jesus, King of the Jews' (27:37; Hic est Jesus rex Jud├Žorum in the Vulgate). John, who is depicted as one of the younger disciples in this film, is also shown holding hands with Jesus at one point, presumably reflecting the frequent references to him as 'the disciple Jesus loved' in his own Gospel.

Matthew is an interesting choice for a Marxist director as well. I vaguely remember reading an article which I think was by Ste Croix years ago while I was revising for my final exams about economics, class and the Gospels. Possibly-Ste-Croix argued that Luke's Gospel was aimed at the poor (hence, the shepherds) while Matthew's was aimed at the better-off (the wise men paying homage emulating the elite from the east paying homage to a king or emperor). Luke's Beatitudes say simply 'blessed are the poor', implying that the fact of being poor makes one more worthy than the rich, whereas Matthew's say 'blessed are the poor in spirit', implying you can still be rich and blessed. Having said that, Matthew's Gospel does include the story of the rich man who wants to be perfect and the saying that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (the English subtitles clearly saying 'the eye of a needle' not 'the Eye of the Needle') than a rich man to enter heaven, and Pasolini emphasises the working-class status of Jesus and his disciples through costume and location.

The dialogue is taken directly from the Gospel, with minimal additions if any, so several scenes which are described in the Gospel but feature no dialogue are done without dialogue in the film, expressed largely through facial expressions. Pasolini makes some very interesting choices in casting and direction. Salome, in particular, looks quite different to many other interpretations. Her dance for Herod Antipas is often used as an excuse to have a sexy woman perform an alluring dance, allowing the audience to enjoy the dance at the same time as morally condemning it, just like Roman orgy scenes. Here, though, Salome is a much younger girl, and while her dance is pretty, it's not overtly sexual. Herod's reaction simply makes him look more leering, while Salome is clearly being ordered what to do by her mother Herodias and she herself comes across as more innocent than usual.

Pasolini's film is well known for being made in Italian neo-realist style, though as far as 'realism' more generally goes, I couldn't help comparing it to Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Pasolini uses non-professional actors and films on location, where Zeffirelli used an all-star cast of well-known actors, creating more of a barrier between audience and film as we recognise Ernest Borgnine or Anne Bancroft as themselves. However, where Zeffirelli tried to make a film as historically accurate as possible, Pasolini uses distinctly non-Roman architecture (Zeffirelli used a ninth-century Islamic fortress, but less obviously), non-Roman hairstyles and his Roman soldiers look like they've stepped straight out of a Renaissance painting. Their round helmets are especially egregious. I also had some trouble with the fact he'd cast Mary realistically young in the Nativity scenes, but cast his own mother as the older Mary - a woman far too old at the time of filming to have believably given birth to a 33-year-old at around 12-15 years herself.

Interestingly, Pasolini also depicts some of the more ostentatious miracles left out by Zeffirelli - Jesus walking on water, and the dramatic earthquake that occurs as he dies - as well as depicting the healing of leprosy far more viscerally and physically dramatically than most. (That was a great scene - in the Gospel, Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone, but Matthew tells us he went around telling everyone. In the film, with Jesus in the foreground facing the camera, we see the man run behind him and immediately start exclaiming to everyone around him, waving his arms around frantically). Perhaps, being an atheist who believed none of it anyway, he felt more comfortable with the more obviously extra-natural elements of the story.

The whole film also has a surreal feel to it, partly thanks to the direction, but also thanks to the habit of Italian films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s of post-synching all the dialogue, so no one's lips quite match their speech. (For a long time I thought this was just Fellini being weird, but when I watched Suspiria for a Den of Geek article last week, I discovered it's a quirk of Italian cinema of that period in general). Indeed, several of the main characters are voiced by entirely different actors to those portraying them on screen. It gives everything an eerie, other-wordly sensation. This feeling is further enhanced by the wide variety of music used in the score, including sweeping classical orchestral music, guitar-twanging American blues, Christian music and a joyous theme in a style I didn't recognise.

I enjoyed this film very much. The focus on one specific Gospel makes it slightly different from other Jesus films - yes, the story is still familiar, but it's an interesting way to focus it. Pasolini could perhaps have been slightly less thorough in covering everything in Matthew's Gospel, as the section covering Jesus' various teachings, in which we simply see Jesus declaim various well-known sayings, was a bit like sitting through a slightly dull sermon in church. On the other hand, the actor playing Jesus was distractingly sexy - not that the other actors I've seen play him are unattractive (especially Caviezel, though he's too horribly mutilated for much of his film to distract in that way), but this guy oozed sexiness, and the fact he spent much of the early part of the film staring intently at people and telling them to come with him didn't help. He also had the most wonderful head of slicked-back 1960s Italian (actually, Spanish) hair, which did not entirely go with his very traditional white Jesus-robe.

All in all, I'd thoroughly recommend this to anyone interested in Jesus films, ancient world films or Italian cinema. If you want to watch something in Italian to practice the language, this is definitely my favourite of the films I've tried so far.

More film reviews

Friday, 30 January 2015

Catching up

I know the blog's been a bit quiet lately - life stuff. It may be a while before I'm able to catch up on much, but I'm still active at Den of Geek and Doux Reviews.

I'm part of teams reviewing Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files at Doux Reviews. I had no idea how many TNG episodes I hadn't seen... I'm loving re-visiting The X-Files, except for the conspiracy arcs, which I always pretty much ignored from about season 3 onwards - that makes them quite difficult to review for others, as I have really no idea what's going on in most of them! Of course, The X-Files has been in the news lately, as it may be revived in a shorter form. I'm not entirely convinced that's a good idea, but on the other hand, I liked the generally disliked second movie, and the series finale was an utter mess, so maybe a short series could give the whole thing a stronger sense of closure and round it off nicely.

My current series of articles for Den of Geek consists of guides to getting into long-running shows without having to watch every single episode, especially when everyone tells you season one isn't so good but it gets better. How on earth is that meant to make me want to watch season one?! (Though I have to say, in the end, I enjoyed Supernatural season one very much, and season one of The X-Files is my favourite by far). Anyway, The X-Files will be up next, as soon as I've had time to write it (they take ages, as I have to keep checking which episode was which!) so if you've never seen the show but want to give it a go before any new version comes out, keep an eye out for that!

Also in the news in the last couple of weeks, Atlantis has been cancelled. The last seven episodes of season two will air in the spring, and then that's your lot. Honestly, I feel terrible about this because a lot of people have lost their jobs, but I'm sort of relieved. Part of the reason I haven't managed to review season two yet is that I simply haven't had time - I haven't finished season two of Plebs yet either, and I still hugely enjoy that. But part of the reason was also that it was such a slog to watch and talk about it.

To be fair, that isn't necessarily entirely down to the quality of the show. I watched a couple of episodes from the first part of season two on TV without writing them up and they passed the time reasonably well. I was very happy to see Medea appear, and although I came in halfway through the story and wasn't sure what was going on, it looked like they were doing something really interesting with Orpheus and Eurydice. Sometimes, something that's great fun to watch and is a good show is just very difficult to write about critically, as I discovered when I reviewed The Big Bang Theory for Den of Geek last year. I mean, what can you say each week - nothing much happened, but it made me laugh, because it's a sitcom and that's what they do?! It certainly exercised my creativity, that's for sure. So part of Atlantis' problem from my point of view may have been that it's fun, Saturday-night telly, it's not meant to be earth-shattering, so it isn't.

But I think there are some interesting issues surrounding what Atlantis did with the mythology as well. I'm a big fan of playing around with myth, of doing different things with it and coming up with new versions, as I'm sure you know. I’ve defended Troy many times, and I liked last summer’s Hercules (the one with The Rock) very much. I loved Atlantis’ interpretation of Hercules and as I said, it looked like they were doing something interesting with Orpheus.

But perhaps Atlantis got a bit too creative. If you’re going to write something based on or inspired by pre-existing stories, there should probably be enough of the pre-existing story that’s recognizable, otherwise what’s the point? You might as well write a fresh story with fresh characters and do whatever you want with it. Atlantis’ Pasiphae bears pretty much no resemblance to the mythical Pasiphae, it took ages for Medea to show up and Ariadne was still being presented as Jason’s main love interest, Medusa was with Hercules, Pythagoras – a real person – was there for some reason… For people who don’t know the stories, it probably doesn’t matter but it means even the most basic level of recognition is lost, and for people who know the stories, keeping up with that level of messing around with them becomes confusing after a while.

There were other issues too. Jason was given a backstory that should have informed his every move, thought and reaction – that he had grown up in the modern era (and was some kind of marine archaeologist or something, if I remember rightly) but that has hardly been mentioned since. He never feels like a modern man at all. All of the characters are rather broadly drawn, and the women got short shrift in season one, all being either saints or sinners, with only Medea in season two offering a slightly more complex character.

And on a personal level, although I absolutely love Robin Hood legends, Arthurian legends and Greek myth, I haven’t really been able to get in to any of the BBC’s dramas on the subjects. I watched a bit of Merlin, mainly for Colin Morgan, but neither Atlantis nor Robin Hood were able to boast a lead actor with as much talent or charisma as him. I can see what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to recreate the American shows that I love, balancing humour and drama in 45 minute episodes, but somehow they never quite manage it. Perhaps they need to stop trying and be something more British instead. Just look at French zombie drama The Returned – it couldn’t be more French, and it’s brilliant.

It would also help if they decided whether they were a family show or a drama aimed primarily at adults, and stopped equating ‘family’ with ‘children’. Star Trek (various incarnations) is a family show, which means it doesn’t include graphic sexual or violent content (apart from that one time that dude’s head blew up, and some stuff that happens on Risa) but it takes its drama seriously and includes stories on all manner of topics. Atlantis, of course, suffered particularly badly in this respect, as the first series was written for an earlier time slot than it was given, and then the second tried self-consciously to be ‘darker’. I think the lesson here is, don’t write for a timeslot or an audience beyond minor consideration of how graphic you’re going to be. Write great stories for interesting characters and take care of the rest later. You can always edit out that steamy sex romp if you unexpectedly get given an earlier time slot. And don’t write for children as if they were a sub-set with different tastes than adults. Children enjoy great stories and great characters in just the same way as adults do.

I’d better stop before this gets any more ranty, and before I start explaining why I prefer Star Trek to Doctor Who and end up kicking off a flame war! Anyone have any thoughts on Atlantis? Are you sorry to see it go? I’ll miss its gorgeous set design, I think…

P.S. When drafting this post, I completely forgot the most important bit of news - my book came out in paperback yesterday! Amazon don't quite seem to have caught up to this yet but you can buy it from Bloomsbury's website. There's also a Kindle edition, and both are under £20, which is pretty great for an academic book!
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