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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 where these stories originally happened.

Films about Jesus are not very common in the Middle East, partly due to Sunni restrictions on depictions of the prophets. In Shi'ite Iran, however, there have been a number of films lately about biblical figures such as Abraham, Joseph, Solomon, Mary, and Jesus, all of which reflect Muslim beliefs about these characters. And even more recently, a Palestinian filmmaker working in Jordan directed a film that tells the story of Jesus from a Christian point of view, featuring an all-Arab cast speaking Arabic dialogue.

One of the earliest Iranian films about a biblical character was Saint Mary (2002), directed by Shahriar Bahrani. The film depicts the birth and early life of the Virgin Mary, up to the birth of Jesus, and while some aspects of the story reflect a clearly Muslim set of beliefs about Mary, others can be traced back to apocryphal Christian texts. The film's depiction of Mary growing up in the Temple goes back to the 2nd-century Infancy Gospel of James, while the film's depiction of Mary as a type of Hagar, who gives birth to Jesus in the desert and receives food and water from a heavenly voice there, has its roots in the Koran.

The film concludes with a confrontation between Mary and the Jewish priests, who are convinced that they must execute her for having a child out of wedlock. To their shock, the infant Jesus speaks and declares that he is a prophet who has been enjoined by God to cherish his chaste mother. The priests fall to the floor, the surrounding crowd kneels before Mary and her child, and the Magi step forward and present their gifts. (In an earlier scene, the Magi made a point of saying that they are Persians who worship Ahura Mazda, and that the coming of the Messiah will be a blessing for monotheists everywhere. Thus the film allows its primary audience to see itself in the story, through its ancestors.)

This film was followed a few years later by Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007), also known as The Messiah, directed by Nader Talebzadeh—and, like Saint Mary, also available as a much longer miniseries. One of the most striking things about this film, given how its Jesus repeatedly insists that he is not divine, is how a lot of it can be traced back to the Gospel of John, which is by far the clearest of the canonical gospels on the subject of Jesus' divinity. The film also draws an explicit contrast between the Christian belief in Jesus' crucifixion and the belief held by some Muslims—and expressed in the late-medieval Gospel of Barnabas—that God tricked the authorities into crucifying Judas Iscariot rather than Jesus.

A few themes can be found across both films. These include, alas, a strain of anti-Semitism; in Saint Mary, an angry priest declares to one of his fellow Jews that they are "the master race" and that they must "dominate the entire world, its politics and economics," while the narrator in Jesus, the Spirit of God says that "God set a seal on the cruel hearts of the children of Israel" because of their role in the death of the man they thought was Jesus.

More positively, both of these films show a special interest in the plight of women. Saint Mary begins with a woman lamenting that the birth of any girl is a "disgrace" to the family. In another scene, a couple of women mercilessly tell Elizabeth that if she's childless, it must be her fault and not her husband's, because God did make Zechariah a prophet after all. Against this, the film has Zechariah deliver an impassioned speech to the elders, in which he reminds them, provocatively, that all men are raised by women, while Mary herself prays for a Roman soldier's daughter to be healed, telling the soldier, "It is the love of your wife and daughter that has delivered you."

Similarly, the miracles that Jesus performs in Jesus, the Spirit of God are frequently done for the benefit of women—either directly, in the case of a hunchback and a deaf-mute woman, or indirectly, in the case of the women whose sons and brothers are raised from the dead. The film also refers to the spirits that Jesus cast out of Mary Magdalene, and it depicts Jesus' defense of the woman who was accused of adultery. (Notably, the film allows for the possibility that she may have been falsely accused.)

While these films were being made in Iran, other filmmakers were trying to get Arabic films about Jesus off the ground in Egypt and Lebanon, but so far those plans haven't come to fruition—partly due to strong opposition from Muslim clerics like the ones at the Al Azhar institution in Cairo.[1] However, in 2013, Palestinian filmmaker Robert Savo completed an all-Arabic dramatization of the gospels shot in Jordan and Bulgaria called The Savior.[2]

The Savior is framed as an adaptation of Luke's gospel, with narration by Luke himself, but it borrows elements from the other gospels, and its structure—more than half of the film is devoted to the events following Palm Sunday—resembles John's gospel most closely. The film begins with the Annunciation and ends with the Ascension, both of which come from Luke, but it also includes Jesus' conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, which come from John, and the suicide of Judas, which comes from Matthew.

While the film does combine episodes from the gospels in interesting ways—having the apostles argue over which of them is greatest after Jesus washes their feet at the Last Supper, for example—there is very little pure dramatic embellishment, and the film is such a straightforward adaptation of the text that it may be difficult for outsiders to discern just what is culturally specific about this particular telling of the story. Nevertheless, a few unique details do stand out: the narrator uses traditional names for towns that are anonymous in the Bible; a light descends on Mary's womb while she is sleeping, to signify the beginning of her pregnancy; and there is a somewhat surprising close-up of the infant Jesus' foreskin being dropped into a bowl by the person performing his circumcision.

Its adherence to the text works to The Savior's benefit. The gospel spread to the world from the Middle East, and the film reclaims these stories most effectively not by rewriting the script for a specific audience but by allowing these stories to be inhabited by the people who live and work in the very same places where Jesus himself once lived and worked. At last, the people living in the Holy Land have a Jesus movie they can call their own.

Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogger at Patheos.com with a special interest in Bible movies. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.

1. "Muslims oppose new film about Jesus by Orthodox Christian," Catholic News Agency, March 24, 2006; Ali Jaafar, "Eagle, Marwa sets Jesus biopic," Variety, February 7, 2009; Hani Mustafa, "The last temptation of Ahmed Maher," Al-Ahram, January 7, 2010.

2. The Savior, like the Egyptian and Lebanese films, has been called the first Arabic movie about Jesus, but that isn't necessarily the case. A film called The Life and Passion of the Christ was reportedly produced by the Al Arabia Cinema company in Egypt in the 1930s and shown every year at Christmas and Easter until it was banned in the 1970s (Ahmed Fouad, "Egypt bans 'Exodus' movie," Al-Monitor.com, January 19, 2015). But it is difficult to find any detailed information about this film in English, and the only purported copies of it that I have found are actually dubbed versions of a Mexican film called The Martyr of Calvary (1952).

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