See the moving picture



La Vie et la Passion de N.S.J.C. (Life and Passion of Christ / Passion Play)

Ferdinand Zecca, Pathé-Frères, France, 1907

Frames 1-3  In (1), we see Joseph and Mary entering Nazareth diagonally from background to foreground. The set, which consists of prop structures in the foreground and a painted backdrop beyond, is constructed to provide both real and illusory depth of space within which movement worthy of a “motion picture” can be accentuated. A similar effect is achieved in (2), which depicts the journey of the Three Wise Men through the desert. Movement here is as much lateral as diagonal, and although depth of space is primarily a function of the perspective commanded by the painted background flat, note that the backdrop color scheme actually provides narrative information—the fact that it’s nighttime. (Artificial lighting may have been used to define the foreground space occupied by the procession of pilgrims.) As befits a tale consisting of supernatural events, La Vie et la Passion also depends heavily on such trick effects as superimposition, which is sufficient to provide a quite effective rendering of Jesus walking upon real waters in (3).

Frames 4-6 incorporate superimposition into a trick-effect scheme which requires the integration of the trick image into a narrative context provided by conventionally realized narrative imagery. Note, for example, that the frame is divided horizontally. This composition, which occurs several times during the film, creates an appropriate space for visions of heavenly significance bearing upon the story being told in the earthbound space below: sleeping shepherds (4) are awakened by the light of the Nativity star (5) that they may hear the good tidings announced by an angel (6). The effect, as in (3), is the result of a dissolve and a simple multiple exposure--the superimposition of one exposure onto to another in order to create a single image.

In Frames 7-9, we see a thematically pertinent variation on a similar trick effect. Fleeing from Nazareth at the behest of an angel, Joseph and Mary descend a rocky hill (a highly realistic studio set built for movement through deep space) and pause to rest (7). As Joseph prays for guidance, a sword-wielding angel appears (another combination of dissolve and superimposition) (8). What’s most interesting about this complex tableau is the fact that Joseph and Mary, one on either side of the angel, disappear by the same cinematic means. When soldiers arrive in search of the child Jesus, the angel dispatches them in theatrical action played out on the physical set. Joseph and Mary then reappear—no longer invisible—in the same postures in which they had vanished (9). Arguably, Zecca accomplishes more by this manipulation of tableau-bound mis-en-scène than a mere spectacle of cinematic ingenuity: the effect of the angel’s materialization in theatrical (that is, physical) space denotes the willingness of God to enter into the material world of human affairs in order to keep faith with his new covenant—a covenant which is fulfilled, of course, by the presence of the Son of Man in that world.

The sequence in Frames 10-15, which consists of three shots, is a good example of the system of representation and narration that Pathé had begun introducing into feature films between 1904 and 1907. Having chopped a log for the fire, Joseph climbs a hillock on a right-to-left foreground-to-background diagonal until he exits, followed by the boy Jesus, in the upper-left corner of the frame (10). A direct cut to (11) finds father and son moving on a right-to-left background-to-foreground diagonal along a path descending from the hilltop until they reach the bottom of the frame, where they turn to exit the frame laterally, moving left to right (12). Another direct cut takes us to another space—a house before which we see Mary in the foreground, carrying water onto the portico (13). Joseph and Jesus then appear in the background of the same shot, moving laterally left to right, then vertically from background to foreground, where they turn to fall in behind Mary (14). All three figures then move laterally right to left, passing through a doorway into a cutaway set of the house (15).

The design of the sequence clearly calls for a spectacle of movement flowing through contiguous spaces, and the representation of contiguity is a function of both one well-matched cut (from [10] to [11]) and one well-choreographed long take ([13]-[15]). Note, however, that in presenting the space delineated by the long take, the single camera perspective requires that the movement staged within it take place without disturbing its spatial integrity. The space delineated by the direct cut, however, is synthetic: it consists of two spaces—one side of the hillock and the other side—which, because of a logical shift in camera perspective and a plausible flow of movement between them, appear to be contiguous despite the fact that they could in reality be spatially distant from one another. The pro-filmic space is constructed by the joining of discrete shots.

Zecca’s interest, however, in the creation of a synthetic space dictated by character movement seems to be limited to the occasional dissection of a sequence of long-shot tableaux, and there are no instances in La Vie et la Passion of the dissection of a scene into discrete shots. Take, for instance, the panning shot which takes us from the exterior to the interior of the house. Rather than the contrivance of a cutaway wall, the modern viewer no doubt expects a well-matched cut between a shot of the characters’ entry through the door to a shot of their emergence in the interior. (For detailed discussions of Ferdinand Zecca, see Chapter 6.3 and Biographical Sketch 6.1.)

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