No matter what impact he has had on history, Jesus Christ has not fared well on film. Discounting symbolic accounts, including those revolving around a Christ figure, only three of heaven knows how many films I have seen have stayed with me. One isn’t even a complete film; it’s an episode in, from Sweden, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919). With its open air freshness and spiritual beauty, this remains remarkable Christ material, and the balance of the film isn’t ponderous like the American film on whose structure Dreyer modeled the structure of his: D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). At his death in the mid-’60s, Dreyer left unrealized the full-scale film about Jesus he had scripted and planned; given the spiritual intensity of Ordet (1954), perhaps the finest expression of Christian faith in cinema, one doesn’t doubt that Dreyer’s Christ film, had he made it, would have been another of his masterpieces. Two sound films are of interest here, one that surpasses Dreyer’s Leaves and one that does not. The finest rendering of Christ material in cinema remains Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), with its rabble-rousing Leftist Jesus, and the filmmaker’s own mother, Susanna, achingly wonderful as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Patiently filmed by Pasolini, and beautifully photographed in black and white by Tonino delli Colli, this is the film that best conveys the power of the myth of Christ—the deep impression of solemn joy that his miraculous nature brought forth, encompassing the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’s own “rising” from the tomb after being killed by Jerusalem’s occupying Romans, according to the tale. His reappearance after death to tell followers “I will be with you always” is, apart from the conclusion of Dreyer’s Ordet, the single most thrilling such moment in cinema, though, of course, in context, Pasolini, a Marxist and a humanist, and not a religionist, is stressing Christ’s legacy of socialism and humane activism. Beautiful film, this, and with a script whose one source is the gospel that gives the film its title.
The other sound film in this group is The Messiah, by Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini himself did not see it released. He completed the film, commissioned for Italian television, in 1975; three years waited before the film saw the light of day, by which time Rossellini had passed from earth. Perhaps he, Dreyer and Pasolini are still comparing notes on the other side.
At the outset let me stipulate a fact and an opinion: I myself am not a believer (and who knows whether Rossellini was, either); part of a body of work of present-tense histories that engaged Rossellini’s interest in the final phase of his career, The Messiah is nowhere near the exalted level of The Rise of Louis XIV (1966), Blaise Pascal (1972) and The Age of Cosimo de Medici (1973), all done for either French or Italian TV. Rossellini was a humanist, not a religionist; and, in truth, the subject matter of a film about Jesus doesn’t make for a perfect fit. On the other hand, Rossellini’s highest attainment, co-written by Federico Fellini, remains Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950), about St. Francis—a tremendous work that locates the point where Italian humanism and spiritual faith cross. However, in tone and affect The Messiah is much closer to Rossellini’s Socrates (1971). Teacher though he was, I am not sure that Jesus qualifies as a man of reason, and Rossellini finds no other way of approaching him in the film. Once a humanist, always a humanist.
The Messiah has other problems besides. Its prefatory condensation of Hebrew history, reaching all the way back to the first Hebrew king, Saul, is telescopic foolishness. Eleven centuries of history are hopelessly resistant to such a reduction, especially when the rationale, a turning-in-the-mind of the Hebraic concept of, and ambivalence towards, kingship floats uneasily betwixt the provinces of history and myth. Moreover, the anti-Semitic taint of the enterprise spreads like a cancer through the film. Forget about a single Judas among the disciples; in this film, Judas is a symbolic stand-in for the Pharisees, the whole lot of whom are arrayed against Jesus in a tribal eruption of hate that hews to the ridiculous line, a rationale for anti-Jewish bigotry through the ages, that the crucifixion of Christ can be laid at the feet of the Jewish people. Oh, the Romans? They’re given a pass, with even Pontius Pilate emerging as a man of dignity and fairness who is reluctant to condemn Jesus but for the interminable insistence of all those unkempt, clamorous Jews. This bias betrays itself most blatantly when the incontestably Roman act of nailing Christ to the Cross is relegated to the wilderness of offscreen action. And, as if to add insult to injury, Rossellini has populated his film with Arabs playing Jews—at best an insensitive (if physically convincing) approach to casting the film.
Alas, all this reminds one of Rossellini’s own history. Rossellini remained a Fascist filmmaker until 1943 when, in collaboration with Fellini, he shifted his allegiance to the Resistance with the surreptitiously shot, neorealist Rome, Open City (1945), one of the most politically passionate films ever made. For eight years, then, Rossellini subordinated his art to Mussolini’s interests. I know, I know: as an Italian filmmaker, he couldn’t do otherwise if he wanted to work, and he needed to work in order to develop his craft. (Coming from wealth, though, he did not need the money.) And, indeed, we have all given him a pass on all this for the riches he has given us in return, some of the world’s most probing and incisive films about the Second World War and, in Europe, its conflicted, complex aftermath; and, later, his glorious histories analyzing power and celebrating reason, and demonstrating their combined role in Western accomplishment. I even understand that it may be national pride that moved Rossellini to cast such a favorable light on the Romans, which meant overlooking their brutality and, concomitantly, viewing Jews, except for Jesus, his family and loyal disciples, in a less than flattering light. All the same, The Messiah distresses with the memories it calls up regarding Rossellini’s professional past.
Coming after Blaise Pascal, a brilliant film, for instance, The Messiah is a distinct letdown.
But it’s a remarkable piece of work nevertheless, with an unexpected and tantalizing point of view. For Rossellini’s Messiah reduces Jesus close to invisibility in order to shift focus and clarify its theme. It is the idea of a messiah that is the central interest here; Jesus Christ is of interest only to the extent that he may be the promised deliverer of the Jews. For Rossellini’s cameras, pitched at a distance, threaten to lose the character of Jesus to space and obscurity, and move in on him only when the film has cumulatively advanced that Jesus in and of himself is a nothing, a cipher, on whom his followers project one burden of associations, on whom Jewish doubters project, derisively, another burden of associations, and whom the Romans discount altogether. Contributing to this outcome of meaning, besides the mostly long-shots primarily applied to Jesus early on, is the portrayal of him as the mildest, most recessive rabbi, the most ordinary and uninspiring teacher imaginable, as well as the relative activity of those surrounding him. Jesus Christ, like Moby-Dick, emerges, then, as a dead center, but without the blind force that Melville’s White Whale also possesses.
Everyone notices this about the film. Whereas others see it as an index of Rossellini’s failure, though, I see it as a window in on his intent. For Rossellini’s Christ is a resonant blank, a sincere moral guide perhaps buttressing his low grade of “classroom charisma” by opportunistically tapping into the interest, even hysteria, involving a hoped-for messiah. In the main, however, it is others who make more of him than Jesus is capable of making of himself; his followers are the ones who make him over in their minds to be the way they need him to be. In this light, the carping Pharisees emerge as a grotesque parody of Jesus’s followers, the naysayers reacting less to Jesus than to his yeasayers, who are insisting, on little evidence, that Jesus fulfills scriptural prophecy relating to the coming of a messiah. In the same light, Rossellini’s decision to leave out Christ’s soul-searching comments on the Cross—“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” “My Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” etc.—makes sense; it keeps the focus from shifting to Jesus even in his most agonizing and ultimate moment on earth. Rossellini, in long-shot, from the vantage of Jesus’s witnessing mother, simply records the crucified man’s head quickly, silently dropping—a mysterious moment, perhaps, but one nevertheless matter-of-fact. In this light, too, the scant long-ago history that the film gives falls into a necessary, if reductive, place; for it sketches in a duo-faceted premise: the hysterical need some have for such a messiah as they believe Jesus to be; the equally hysterical abhorrence of the whole idea that motivates others. Balancing these factions are the reasonable Romans who perceive Jesus, first, as a harmless and, then, as a civilly disruptive phenomenon.
I worry that my “reading” sounds like an infidel’s clever revenge on the film for its whole tenor. But my reading not only fits the film, it nearly unifies it. It’s also Rossellinian. For when Jesus’s tomb, despite having been guarded, is revealed as empty at the end, the cumulative question becomes: What will people make of this? The sense of such a question restores the film to the series of present-tense histories it concludes. One can argue, I suppose, that in treating no less than Jesus Rossellini meant for this film to be a daring departure from the works of his preceding it. After all, Rossellini by no means scripted the death—his own—that lends his Messiah the aura of such radical difference. In fact, Rossellini intended to continue his historical series, with a film about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s later life—the film that became, under Claude Goretta’s inspired direction, The Roads of Exile (1978).
Rossellini’s color cinematographer here, Mario Montuori, is most responsible for deepening Rossellini’s sense of the moment into a hint of timelessness. Montuori believes in The Messiah. I remain unsure that Rossellini was so sure. In any case, his film casts a spell and, like Robert Browning’s amazing poem “An Epistle (Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician),” closes on a note of haunting possibility.
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