One of the most common criticisms of films about Jesus is that the actors chosen for the leading role are either too good-looking, or too white and, not uncommonly, both together. Recent years, though, have seen a bit of a reversal in that particularly trend and what with the performance of part-Tamil Selva Rasalingam in the Lumo Project's Gospel of John finding a wider audience this Easter and Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman's potrayal in Killing Jesus actors of south Asian descent are started to provide a more ethnically correct Jesus.
But before either of those productions got off the ground, Robert Savo's The Savior had already had its première and had been touring film festivals back in 2013. The film not only stars Israeli-born actor Shredy Jabarin in the lead role - which is of itself, I believe, something of a first - but all the dialogue is in Arabic.
Whilst Jabarin's ethnicity and the filmmaker's decision to opt for a Middle-Eastern language are more quasi-authentic than fully authentic, it does make watching the film interesting and its certainly more authentic than the Hollywood Jesuses with their blue eyes and blond hair.
Moreover it's not a bad little film. Jabarin's performance as Jesus may not quite be divine, but there's hardly a step out of place and he manages to add gravitas without getting dull or stodgy over being overly severe. Jesus smiles occasionally but he always feels like a man with a bigger, more pressing vision on his mind.
There is also some nice camerawork, notably the moment Jesus and the disciples emerge over the hill ready for their fateful trip to Jerusalem, good soundtrack and I particularly enjoyed the film's use of colour and camera filters.
One of the things about Jesus films that is usually quit telling is seeing the episodes from his ministry that the filmmakers choose to include and here the film steers away from many of the scenes that appear in most of the other Jesus biopics. So there's no rescuing the adulteress, or Sermon on the Mount, for example. On the other hand we also get a few episodes from the gospels that appeared in a several of the early Jesus films, but have largely been absent ever after. So there's the exorcism in the local synagogue (Mark 1:21-28); the healing of the widow of Nain's son (Luke 7:11-25) replete with the film's best special effects; the mini-apocalypse of Mark 13; and the discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).
Indeed the film manages to pack an awful lot into the first hour or so before Jesus and his disciples arrive in Judea. The nativity story lasts only 15 minutes, the rest of the first hour deals with Jesus' ministry prior to his arrival at the temple. It's able to do this by a combination of economical scene selection combined with the decision to avoid embellishing the story wherever. Whilst it's an interesting approach it perhaps leaves the film a little light on drama and character development. The film tends to whizz from one scene to the next without joining the dots. Each of the scenes, in and of themselves, offer a fairly credible portrayal, but it's not always very clear what motivates the various characters.
One major exception to this however is the long scene of the Last Supper and, in particular, the moment when Jesus washes his disciples feet. It suggests that this demonstration of humility is one of the key points that the filmmakers are trying to stress and that's highlighted still further immediately afterwards when the disciples argue over which of them is the greatest. There's a hint of this in John's gospel, but the contrast is made all the stronger by moving this incident here.
Having said all that there are a few weakness in the film, not least the jarring and rather sporadic use of the narrator, and some of the special effects. The narration device - depicting an elderly Luke sitting down to write - feels very dependent on the Visual Bible's Matthew project and stresses Luke's role. It even opens by emphasising the lengths Luke has to go to just to prepare his ink. But this is a rare device in cinema in general and with good reason. I can see why emphasising the written nature of the text might appeal to those seeking to find common ground with the "people of the book", many of whom speak some form of Arabic, but it adds very little dramatically and the latter parts of the film are all the better for his general absence.
The special effects are also rather mixed. Generally one can accept that a film like this is fairly low budget and may not have the money to invest in impressive special effects; a good film can work around those, indeed as I noted of Ray's King of Kings (1961) some bigger budget films do this anyway. The problem is that most of the effects budget seems to have been used up in the temptation in the desert scene and it doesn't really pay off. I'd be interested to know what proportion of the overall budget went on that scene alone. For some reason it's a common approach to go to town with special effects on this scene and yet the most effective treatments, for me at least, are those where there are no special effects, such as (another big budget film) The Greatest Story Ever Told. Having said all that the angelic scenes are more restrained and I did like the effect used when the widow of Nain's son was brought back to life. I'm quite intrigued to know how they did it.
However, these are fairly minor complaints. Overall the film has a good sense of restraint and is built on fairly sound filmmaking principles. Most of the scenes work well not least because Savo seems to appreciate the restraints he is under and brings out the best with what he has. He knows for example, that many of his actors are not very experienced, so he places a great deal of weight on Jabarin's shoulders, knowing he is up to the task. The dialogue is dramatised but, aside from the narration, not allowed to get bogged down in any particular agenda. And after years of seeing English, American and occasionally European productions the film gives a sense of place, time and sensibility which whilst they may not entirely reflect the first century Palestinian context in which the stories occurred, certainly captures it in a way that few, if any, other films about Jesus do.
Labels: Islamic Jesus Films