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Peter T. Chattaway


You Mean Jesus 'Wasn't' Nordic?

Films about Jesus from the Middle East.

Jesus was born in the Middle East, lived in the Middle East, and died and rose again in the Middle East. But you wouldn't necessarily know it by looking at most of the film and tv actors who have played him over the years.

The stars of major British and American films about Jesus typically have been ethnically European, even Northern European. Actors like Jeffrey Hunter (King of Kings, 1961) and Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth, 1977) were cast in the role for the piercing intensity of their blue eyes, and when Hollywood did turn to foreign actors, it tended to go for the likes of Swedish arthouse star Max von Sydow (The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965). Even the Jesus film (1979)—which, for authenticity's sake, was shot in Israel with Yemenite Jews in most of the supporting roles—cast British actor Brian Deacon in the lead role.

More recently, filmmakers have been pushing for greater authenticity, or at least for actors with darker features who could pass for Middle Eastern. The Nativity Story (2006) cast a Maori girl as Mary, and Palestinian and Iranian actors as Mary's parents and her kinswoman Elizabeth. The Lumo Project, a planned adaptation of all four gospels beginning with last year's The Gospel of John, features an actor of Tamil descent as Jesus. Maori actor Cliff Curtis is playing Jesus in next year's Risen. And, earlier this year, the National Geographic Channel aired Killing Jesus, which starred Arab-American actor Haaz Sleiman.

Born in the United Arab Emirates and raised in Lebanon, Sleiman just may be the first actor who actually hails from the Middle East to play Jesus in a major English-language film. But he wouldn't be the first such actor to play Jesus in a movie, per se. There have been a few Middle Eastern movies about Jesus (and his mother) over the past decade or two, and they offer some interesting insights into how these stories are perceived in the place of their origin, and in the lands closest to ...

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