Shot on the island of Sardinia, using hand-held cameras and putting the island’s stark and dramatic scenery to great effect, Columbu’s Jesus film looks quite unlike any before it. It’s a dirty, grubby film, brought out by graying filters and gritty filmstock. It’s not hard to imagine someone feeling forsaken here, least of all a peasant criminal about to be tortured to death by a bunch of men who haven’t seen a civilised home for years and for whom the sadistic sport of a good crucifixion is at least some sort of diversion.
Like Pasolini before him, Columbu uses a cast of largely non-professional actors and who, whether for extra realism or for financial reasons, were told to bring along their own rough clothes for the “costumes”. Although some cloaks were provided, it’s unusual to see Jesus crucified in a pair of rough short trousers, at once both factually anachronistic, yet more truthful than decades of whitish loincloths. It’s the kind of move that you would expect to be glaring, but never really feels that out of place.
Indeed what Columbu does so successfully despite, or perhaps even because of, such anachronisms, is build a world that feels credibly like the one in which Jesus may have inhabited. Recent Jesus films may have progressed from the pristine sixties crowds of extras, but the odd dab of dirty greasepaint has rarely gone more than skin deep, and even then it’s failed to hide pampered faces and persistently denticured teeth.
The epitome of this approach is in Columbu’s choice of Fiorenzu Mattu to play Jesus. Christians have long debated whether the words from Isaiah 53:2, recited at the start of the film, meant that Jesus was ugly. There are all kinds of problems with that interpretation, but certainly Mattu fits more closely with the idea that there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”. I have no idea if Columbu is familiar with Colin Blakeley’s performance as Jesus in Son of Man (1969), but certainly that is the only Jesus film I can think of which doesn’t portray Jesus as lean and attractive.
In using non-professional actors with real, unadorned faces Columbu is very much following in the footsteps of Pasolini, but the similarities go beyond that. Columbu includes all kinds of nods to his countryman’s famous hagiopic, from the use of the handheld camera to the composition of some of the shots, even down to come of the choices of headwear. Like Pasolini he dwells on close ups of faces, yet the person speaking is, not infrequently, off screen.
Yet Pasolini is not the only director whose work is an apparent influence. The film’s slow, lingering pacing and absence of soundtrack is reminiscent of another Italian director’s work, Albert Serra’s El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008). Su Re is a meditative piece placing the viewer in the moment and involving him or her in proceedings rather than leaving them as an observer from a distance.
One of the ways this is most noticeably achieved is by the use of non-linear narrative. Whilst Bible films often tinker with the chronology of certain events, that tends to be to merely moving the occasional scene out of order to improve the drama’s pacing. Here though the scenes are all jumbled up a la Pulp Fiction. The result is to transform a story which is known and familiar to its audience into something unpredictable and unsettling. It’s immediately disorientating to find the crucifixion featuring so early in the film, only to be followed up with one of the scenes that closely precedes it. The film jumps back and back and then forwards again, often revisiting the same scene from different perspectives.
Some of the comments I read about this film before seeing it suggested it emphasised the differences in the gospels. However, this isn’t so much a deliberate contrasting of the scene in one gospel with the same scene in another; showing the cock crowing differing numbers of times, for example. No, it’s more in the process of retelling the same scene from different angles, or in a slightly different way. It doesn’t seem to go out of it’s way to stress the discontinuity; even less to slavish prioritise one gospel over the others. It’s more that narrative continuity itself doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. This, in itself, emphasises the shifting nature of gospel truth. The Bible doesn’t give us a single video camera perspective of what happens, it gives us different written accounts drawn from written and oral sources all of which bring with them their own interpretations and theology. In each gospel the sands have shifted slightly, not to reveal a radically different and contradictory new version of events, but just a different landscape upon which the events play out. Su Re isn’t a nit-picker led exposé: it just captures this story-like nature of the gospels.
The sense of disorientation is also heightened by the way the different scenes segue into one another. It’s not always clear when one scene ends and a new one begins. This, combined with the way the film jumps back to slightly earlier scenes, gives a sense of a flashback, or accessing earlier memories, only we’re not just inside the head of one specific person. It highlights how the gospels were drawn, in part, from the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, whilst also immersing the viewer in the action on display. It's more an invitation to look at Jesus' last hours again, in a different light; to experience them as if you were present. The result is that, in contrast the overwhelming majority of Jesus films, Su Re doesn't seem to be pushing one particular idea about who Jesus is - it's very much left to the viewer's interpretation.
This is possible, in part, because the film, in the tradition of the passion play, deals only with the events of Jesus' death. The miracles and his compassionate acts have largely been and gone, as has his teaching ministry. But perhaps the biggest difference between Su Re and other films in the passion play tradition is that Jesus seems far less in control of the events that are unfolding: Jesus never defiantly drags himself up in the middle of his scourging, nor does he speak to the authorities that are trying him with that knowing sense of confidence and certainty.
The result is, perhaps for the first time in film, a focus on Jesus as a victim. Stripped of his prior ministry and his future glory we behold the man: forsaken, confused, scared and alone. Many will see that as weakness, forgetting, perhaps, the man in the olive grove sweating blood and praying desperately that this suffering be taken from him. It's rather familiar, however, to those well-versed in another part of Isaiah 53. "Oppressed...afflicted..like a lamb to the slaughter". Columbu's Jesus is an outsider, an unbeautiful victim deserted and discarded in an overlooked corner of the empire of Rome. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53 there is hope and a meaning to all we see here. But it should do us good to remember that at this point in Jesus' life, that may not readily have come to mind.
Labels: Su Re (The King)