Translating the Gospel into Film

Tyndale's translation of the bible was not only into English, and a very particular English; it was a translation into print. We are accustomed to thinking of his work as quaintly old, antique even in relation to the AV, but that custom ignores how much Tyndale was an innovator, and a European pioneer at the forefront of technological development. Before his pocket edition NT, English bibles had been laboriously and expensively produced by hand, each with its own designer errors. After it, the bible could only be conceived as a printed thing, and as a mass product. And for 500 years we have been conditioned by that Renaissance technology and marketing.

Suddenly that's all over. As Ronnie Sim points out in this issue, there are nigh on 6,000 languages awaiting their first Gospel, and most of them without a system of writing. The book would seem to be not only a cumbersome way of doing this, but also one which is pretty old-fashioned. Tyndale's solution, I guess, would be to make all the use of satellite television and video computers he could, so the truth could be seen and heard and understood. If the Word can be made flesh, and made print, then it can be made film and video and CD, and a thousand more things not yet on the drawing-board. I hope that in future issues we may give some time and thought to such things.

For this present, however, I want to raise the problem of religious film in general, and translating the Gospel in particular. As I see it, the main drawback is this: language, whether spoken or written, has both outward and inward forms. We use it for transactions and meditation, for gossip and prayer. We have grown up with the novel convention that the author shows us not only what characters do and say, but also what they think to themselves. In translating this into film, this latter has to be presented either by a clumsy voice-over technique that is felt as foreign to the language of film, or else conveyed through symbolic gestures, music, or the language of the human face.

It is convenient for my purpose that Channel 4 television has recently had a Pasolini season and started off with his 1964 Gospel According to St Matthew. Unlike most religious films that are either 'epic' or hagiographical or nonnagraphical, this aims at an actual translation into film (image, drama, music, scene) of a text, limiting itself to what the text says without addition. Now the literary feature of Scripture most irritating to adaptation is how much is not said. There is dialogue enough and the occasional context, but little or nothing about what the characters were thinking or how they felt, the things that most interest novel writers and readers.

Pasolini's solution is twofold. He uses music, particularly Bach's earlier translation of the same text into Passion-oratorio; and these quotations and others (like Prokofiev's Nevsky music for the slaughter of the Innocents) are integral to the emotional reading. The musical intertextuality implies an audience that knows and loves the high moments of filmic art.

His other answer is to focus the drama on what Blake called the 'human face divine.' He got together out of the villages of his countrymen an anthology of faces that strike and remain on the retina for ever, just as a painter or a photographer would fix the image. Most of the faces are saying the same thing: Who is this man? And that responding is a centre of the text which says in essence, this is Jesus called the Christ, listen to him, and judge the truth of his words, and the needs of your own soul.

One might easily believe that the art of film has nothing to add to the art of the book. Pasolini's translation, I believe, demonstrates otherwise.

To open up discussion in this area I asked Paul Jackson if he would send me some observations on Pasolini's translation, and these I subjoin.

A proposition: This film is part of an ancient tradition which in Christianity dates back at least to the Mystery Plays (and their contemporary frescoes). The serious basis of the Christian plays is to present the bible-stories to those otherwise unacquainted with them - the ordinary populace - a similar aim to Tyndale's.

Pasolini has intentionally drawn on this Mystery Play tradition in casting townspeople: nobodies and non-actors in roles of major significance in the story - perhaps he felt some socialist necessity to do this?

The Gospels purpose is to provide the stagework - an oxcart from the back of which Christ the player can address the crowd.

Putting Christ on celluloid ... (in common with on canvas)... is somehow a legitimate and inevitable feature of the Incarnation ... in the same way as the Word appearing in print. Neither of these should ever become anything like a surrogate Incarnation.

Technique in film: A film puts faces to character. By convention, film hugs the face not the figure as does a painting. The logic for this is the necessity for speech. It is normal for film to follow dialogue rather than action ever since the demise of silent films and under the pressure of the tradition of stage-plays.

Pasolini uses the face, but there are large differences. First there is actually very little dialogue, and next to no conversation. Contrarily there is massive concentration on faces - seemingly hundreds of them. Perhaps a whole hour of the film surveys unlacing heads.

Pasolini's faces often have a pointed blankness - nearly always apprehensive. I can't tell how the director conveys the thoughts of those faces. I don't think that they always work, but if they work at all they are astounding.

How does the boy holding his little brother in his arms look at Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem? (perhaps a more moving moment than anything in the later ,laughter scene). What manner of men are those of the Sanhedrin as they watch the dying Herod?

Technique in time: Pasolini has found a way of using time to enhance his visual vocabulary. The examples above and many more use periods of time which - from our being used to rapid switching from subject to subject in normal film - may seem quite uncomfortable. The only other art form that's like this is opera where the practice of repetition and dwelling on themes, in keeping with the mechanics of an aria, expand a moment of conversation into a dramatic crisis. Pasolini uses such drawn-out 'moments' to powerful effect.

Mary looks at the approaching Magi, who halt. She rises to her feet. Slowly she begins a slight smile. She sits down again, and then slowly looks to Joseph. Satisfied she looks back to the waiting Magi, offering the baby to them. It goes on. Mostly we dwell on her face but there is a welter of implied emotion which the long drawn-out and artfully awkward manoeuvring is activating.

Joseph sees the Christ-child and reaches, reaches, reaches for him finally to come.

The act of coming or going is elaborately played out, as Joseph journeys to have his dream, and comes back to Mary. It certainly does evoke tension, but maybe it also hints at the great veracity of the story. I think the finest of these frustrated moments or actions is the scene where the two disciples are running with their nets, chasing, playing in semi-serious intensity.

I don't understand what these do, but they're there. Painting which either has no or alternatively infinite time value tends to transfigure the moment, making it significant and eternal, making anyone painted seem godlike. Perhaps film insists on the transience of human activity - our fidgeting and twitching. Christ became transient for us - speaking over his shoulder as he twists and turns through the white-washed alleys.

(Presumably, when Mary and the Magi met, there must have been a two-hour conversation at least, given the length of journey they'd undertaken - but Pasolini sticks to his silent text and will not include any 'additional dialogue.' It's strictly for this reason I call his film a translation rather than an 'epic'. As for reproduction into any language, it only needs re-subtitling, or some reader to speak in the audience's dialect. Editor)

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