Monday, May 11, 2009

"Jacob: The Man Who Fought With God": still a quirky Bible story, about the "accidental" patriarch

As with the episode of “Samson and Delilah,” made into opera that I wrote about last week, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) has some stories that seem to correspond to some kinkiness in our culture today, to our notions about “what it means to be a man” or to be a woman.

So is the case with “Jacob: The Man Who Fought With God” (“Giacobbe, l'uomo che lottò con Dio”), an Italian film directed by Marcello Baldi, from San Paolo Films (a studio that makes Biblical films) and Eurocine all the way back in 1963, dubbed in English.

The narrative seems rushed, as it first sets up the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the pillar or salt stuff but then skips most of if. Likewise, the scene where Abraham tries to sacrifice Isaac seems almost crude, except that we know its significance.

Forty minutes into the movie it gets to the birthright business, having already mentioned some other facts about ancient society, such as that a man could have another woman if his “wife” was “barren.” Progeny and lineage were everything you lived for in their world.

Esau gives away the birthright when he is hungry, and then Rachel (Judy Parker) rationalizes her belief that her second, more gentle and favored son, should become the true patriarch. Now, to simulate being sufficiently hirsute, Jacob (Giorgio Cerioni) simply wears a bear’s hide on his arms, as if Esau had been more like a gorilla genetically. In fact, later we see Esau chasing him, and the crude makeup has red fur pasted on to his arms and chest (rather the reverse of “40 Year Old Virgin”). In fact, the actor who plays Jacob looks “normally male” with average amounts of hair; he is not made smooth (as in some of the Fox spectacles of the era – remember how Victor Mature always looked in the 50s). (Actually, the brothers were born this way; actually premature babies can be born with lanugo, which is normally shed in vitro). The entire matter is the brushed off as the movie moves on to other customs of ancient tribal law (like should Jacob’s uncle pay him a salary), and then agricultural genetics and biology. (“Animals are like people; they take on the characteristics of their parents.” No kidding.)

This little story, though, was a challenge for Sunday School teachers, as I recall. Well, after all, someone who looked as Jacob as described in Genesis could be “just as much man” as Esau – after all, history proved it. But not until Jacob fights with an angel (or is that God himself, giving a test), just to prove that he can defend himself – and others.

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