The story is essentially that of the passion-play within a passion-play, a growing sub-genre which in addition to several other adaptations of "Christ Recrucified" includes films such as Jesus of Montreal (1989), Man Dancin' (2003), Mary (2005) and, it could be argued, 1973's Jesus Christ, Superstar. But of all those films it's here where the story feels most authentic: the battles are more political than religious; the isolation of the village and it's closely knitted community create the right kind of atmosphere; and the divisive issue at the core is one that still draws deep divides even today.
As with Jesus of Montreal and Man Dancin' the film's passion play is initiated by a religious official who fails to appreciate the radical nature of the play he is commissioning. Here the division comes when an a substantial immigrant community arrives at the village on the verge of starvation. The town's patriarch is a prominent member of the town's council who hide their prejudice behind their concerns for the impact of giving asylum to such a large community. By this time however Father Grigoris has already named the lead actors for the passion play and commissioned them to live out their lives henceforth in a manner consistent with their characters. And so they do.
In many such films the plot begins to whither as division starts to emerge it becomes clear that things are only going to end one way. However whilst the nature of the sub-genre means that this is to some extent inevitable, Dassin manages to sufficiently detach the story from its origins as to obscure how many of the elements will resolve themselves. Furthermore he manages to make the "real story" compelling enough that it is they, rather than the more predictable religious parables, that drive the film to a strong conclusion.
In many ways Dassin's camerawork foreshadows Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo which would not emerge for another 7 years. The rugged barrenness of the rural landscape, the unpolished look of the actors faces, the extensive use of outside locations and the black and white photography make much of this strongly reminiscent of Pasolini's famous film and one can't help but wonder if this film was, to some extent, influential on his choices.
With better distribution the film might still have the potential to be influential today. With Cyprus and Greece in major economic difficulty with Turkey poised to join the Euro, and immigration showing no sign of loosening its hold on the political agenda the issues are as relevant today as they were in the inter-war years in which the film is set. With stories of hunger and destitution on the rise in that part of Europe, tension is rising between those focussing on the authorities' responsibility for their own citizens on the one hand, and those wanting to react with compassion on the other. Aligning "Jesus" with one side or the other might not be particularly constructive at this point in time, but its focus on those suffering is a useful reminder as we wrestle over this complex issue. That two of the council members who initially opposed the immigrants later change their minds ought not to be forgotten.