Saturday 5 January 2013

La Vie et la Passion de Jesus Christ (1903)

I first saw this film a couple of Easters ago, and recalled it last week thinking it might have belonged to the hard-to-populate 1910s.  As it is, it hails from 1903, and is thus a full decade outside the terms of this blog's purpose.  The film is so extraordinary, though, that I don't feel I can neglect it.

For one thing, despite being a hundred and ten years old, it's in colour; hand-coloured at the time, I hasten to add, rather than being daubed more recently - and in highly exciting and thus pleasingly stylised tones.  The boy Jesus in radiant yellow, maturing to an earthy salmon (if there can be such a thing as an earthy salmon), and the angels standing out in monochrome.  It's easy to forget that colours existed at all in the early 1900s, but the hills here are such a vivid green, the characters each carrying their allotted tint.  It's a very different experience both to watching a film in monochrome and to watching a film shot in colour.

The only Jesus biopic I've seen to feature the Transfiguration

I first became interested in Biblical films in 2004 after watching Ben-Hur (1959), and realising how much pictures and performances could do to bring 1st Century Judea to life, and, crucially, to help me get my mind around the order of events of a several-thousand-year-long story.  Six or seven biopics of Jesus, films about Moses, Solomon, Brian, Noah and the rest.  If you want to locate the time and place within the world you know, it's cheaper than visiting Jerusalem.

Despite its short duration (either 44 or 52 minutes, depending on the speed it's screened - but then any film could run for either of those if you screened it fast or slow enough), this one manages to cover a lot of material longer films neglect -  it spends most of its first half on Jesus' nativity and childhood, before giving us a number of single scene tellings of Jesus raising Lazarus, the Last Supper, and Jesus talking the Samaritan woman at the well, for instance, and more special effects-heavy pieces as Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration (an event I've never seen depicted in any other film), and Jesus' baptism (brilliantly described in the Dutch-language intertitles as 'DOOB VAN JEZUS'), with a gleaming pigeon superimposed as the Holy Spirit.

Amazing special effects from 1903

The scope and ingenuity of the thing is amazing for its era.  A complex film replete with effects shots - lots of superimposition and roll-back-and-mix to let characters appear from thin air, lighting effects and cunning use of scenery and cranes.  When cinema came into existence, the theatre was already so advanced that even with crude cameras, the directors and technicians had the experience to make such improbably ambitious works as this.

Despite this film's up to-the-minute techniques and  bold use of the medium, the close-up had only been invented a few years previously, and had yet to catch on.  The vast majority of this film lets the scenes play out in a single shot (the intertitles principally being used to introduce the scenes rather than report dialogue), with the actors all visible in full-frame, head to foot, and with ample empty space above their heads for us to admire the sets, stars, angels and the occasional Sphinx.  Only twice are we blessed with a medium close-up, and I reproduce both here: Christ regarded by Pontius Pilate, and (since this is a French film) St. Veronica and her famous tea-towel.  Women have been rather neglected in my screen-captures so far - though I'm content to blame the films for this more than my own bias in selection - but I'm glad that a hundred and ten years ago a film with only two such shots got something of a gender balance in there.

Behold the man

The patron saint of laundry-workers and photography, apparently.

Though it's a French film, the copy I found on Youtube (and you can watch it here) has the intertitles in Dutch, so it helped that I had more than a little familiarity with the events shown - though I'm sure you could enjoy either guessing or making up your own interpretations, peace be upon them.  Confusingly these intertitles called the film 'Van de Kribbe tot het Kruis' (a translation, not of this film's title, but that of a different and slightly less exciting film on the subject from 1912), while the Youtube page called it 'La vie et passion de notre seigneur Jesus Christ', which isn't quite right either.  Some research to make sure I wasn't confusing two or more films assured me that this is indeed 1903's 'La Vie et la Passion de Jesus Christ'.

So, despite its strangely watchable quality, its innovations of colour and effects, it is truly ancient - made only two years after the Victorian era came to a close, and in the cinemas just before Peter Pan reached the stage, before Dr Seuss, Greta Garbo or Albert Speer were born or the Panama Canal was begun, and during the life-time of Dvořák, Chekov, Jules Verne and Calamity Jane.  Almost everybody alive on Earth when this was in the cinemas is now dead.  So, isn't that exciting.

P.S. 'Doob van Jezus' sounds like it needs to be a band name, or at least a pseudonym.  'Jezus', perhaps because of its novelty, is immediately a more exciting spelling.

P.P.S. In past I've given early films far too little credit.  I'm sure when I reach the 1910s I'll end up using the innovation and quality of this movie as a stick with which to beat backwards and technically wretched pieces which ought to be as good, if not a full decade more advanced.

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