BLACK JESUS (Valerio Zurlini, 1968)

Valerio Zurlini’s Seduto alla sua destra—literally, Seated at His Right, but called Black Jesus in the U.S. for reasons of commercial exploitation that are all the more contemptible given the U.S. role in deposing the democratically elected Congolese premier and replacing him with dictator Joseph-Desiré Mobutu—is stark, gripping and fascinating. Its Maurice Lalubi, played by John Ford regular Woody Strode, is based on Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered by a Belgian mercenary in 1960. Zurlini’s target is European colonialism.
     It is basically a prison film—and one with so existentialist an aura to it, at times you would swear you were watching a French film, not an Italian one. One can imagine Jean-Paul Sartre as having had a hand in the script.
     Lalubi, a black African rebel leader, is thrown into a prison cell with two white men, a soldier and a thief (Pasolini regular Franco Citti). All three are relentlessly and brutally tortured.
     Zurlini creates a painterly prison of the mind that taunts with false possibilities for escape. Rough, ochre, blank stone walls; without a handrail, a huge stairwell; the cell; the blood-spattered interrogation room: these combine in a shambles of a structure, which seems to wobble the historical fates of captors and captives alike. No one is at home: blacks, because their country is being run by foreigners; whites, because Africa as the “backyard of Europe” is too forlornly separated from the main house. In one striking passage, the thief, finding himself unattended, lumberingly shuffles up the steps in pursuit of freedom when, just as suddenly, an officer firmly descends, dashing his hope.
     The Christian pattern of betrayal, torment and martyrdom is likely the least interesting aspect of the material.

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