• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, March 26, 2013

    Il Messia (1975)

    Rossellini's final film, Il Messia, is, as one might expect, unusual for a Jesus film. Rather than starting the story with Mary and Joseph, or John the Baptist, or Jesus about to ride into Jerusalem, it starts 1000 years before as Israel's tribal leaders seek to persuade Samuel that they ought to mimic other tribes and have a king. Samuel and God disagree, but reluctantly give way, with warnings about the consequences if they do. If they accept a king he will charge taxes, press their young men into service and cause a variety of other problems. The Israelites however are not for turning, Saul is anointed king and it is no long before Samuel's status as a prophet is cemented. Soon we see Saul's army taking advantage of their possession and in one, rather shocking scene, hacking up a cow in the name of the king.

    It's significant then that when the film finally begins the story of Jesus it begins in the court of Herod. Herod is even more corrupt and even more hated than his predecessor. When rumour spreads that he has been killed the people cause such an uproar that Herod makes vicious plans to be enacted upon his death. If the people won't mourn out of their love for Herod, he will give them something else to grieve about, just so his passing is accompanied by the sound of wailing. Clearly, if power corrupts, then the role of king brings with it an even more concentrated form of corruption and evil.

    It's significant too that this film is not related to the name of Jesus but instead uses one of the titles associated with kingly power - The Messiah - even though his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus is the antidote to corrupt power and kingship. It's a key theme in the film which is not only displayed in the manner of his death, but in the manner of his ministry. Few films show a starker contrast between the corrupt elite at the top of Jewish society, and between Jesus and his followers. The Jewish leaders are associated almost entirely with grand buildings either around the great temple, or in an enclosed council chamber. The film's biggest flaw is its failure to discriminate between the Jewish leaders and other leading Jews of the time.

    In contrast, Jesus and his disciples are associated with the open air, and with the ins and outs of peasant life. One of the things that people are always struck by when watching this film is the way that Jesus and his disciples continue to work with wood, or catch fish as he teaches them. Their ministry is no aimless wandering, real life very much continues. They continue to be ordinary people in that sense. What I's not appreciated until recently however is just how much of Jesus' ministry takes place in the same space. Jesus and his disciples interact on and return to the same patch of land over and over again, in the heart of a small village. In one much discussed scene we see a flashback to Jesus' childhood with Mary teaching Jesus some of the stories that he will become famous for. But what is often missed is that this scene too takes place within the same space. The whole scene is captured in one long shot as we pan across to Mary and the young Jesus before panning back across to Jesus the man talking with his disciples.

    Another striking aspect of the ministry part of Jesus' last few years is the sending out of the disciples. They begin to recount various parts of Jesus' teaching in a form recognisable to us. One of the most striking is the story of the Rich Young Man. Most Jesus films show this as an event that is happening in real time. Here it is told as an account of an event that has already happened capturing the sense of events transforming into scripture.

    There's a decisive break shortly after as we're told that the time is not 32 AD and Jesus and the disciples head towards Jerusalem. The point is indicated figuratively as well as Jesus and his followers cross a bridge. A new phase is being entered. The authorities are becoming infuriated and Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem. Interestingly the film is one of the few to get the topography correct here. My understanding is limited but Jerusalem, sits a top mount Zion meaning thos entering the city need to go up hill. But in my recollection, most films tend to show this event either on the flat or, as in The Robe amongst others, downhill into the city. The climb here is relatively steep and uphill. The small donkey strains to make it to the gates, and the sense of a king coming in humility, not in power, is made much more forcefully. It also nicely underlines the sense of Jesus' ministry culminating.

    The events of Holy Week pass by fairly quickly. Rossellini follows John in including the clearing of the temple at the start of Jesus' ministry, rather than at the end, and the question of paying taxes to Caesar is only recounted, not acted out. Judas is recruited with the minimum of fuss, and whilst the Last Supper is given decent shrift, it's not hugely extended. Indeed the naturalistic way in which this event passes off - with almost no sense of grand occasion - is a strikingly historic way of presenting the moment.

    Jesus' trial is downplayed even more. Most of the infamous words are there or there abouts, but the moment is restrained. There are no point of view shots from within the crowd, the shots are long and dispassionate, and close ups of Jesus are still relatively rare. The most active part of the scene is the entry of the quickly assembled mob who are to pick Barabbas over Jesus. There's a clear sense that these people are not representative of the quarter of a million Jews in Jerusalem that Passover. They are just the High priests cronies, quickly rounded up to pressure Pilate into submitting to their wants.

    Even more surprisingly for those acquainted with Jesus films is the absence of any procession to the cross. In fact a stations of the cross motif is almost entirely absent. The two Marys and John witness the trial, but when it ends in confusion (highlighting the language barrier which few other films even acknowledge) do not realise the sentence has been passed. When they arrive at Golgotha moments later, Jesus is already on his cross. Few of the words in the Gospels are repeated here and Jesus dies without darkness, thunder, earthquakes or a torn curtain. The scene is accompanied by a haunting children's song, present also when the boy Jesus got lost at the temple, about a cycle of violence and a breakdown in the sacrificial system.

    Even the power that could be wrought from the resurrection is stripped from the film. After a lengthy pieta, where Jesus is finally associated with the inside of a building, Jesus is buried. But the film only goes as far as to provide a Markan ending. The tomb is ending, but the closure of Matthew, Luke and John is denied us. Jesus has gone, and Mary kneels in worship, but the conclusion is far from solid and there are no appearances of the risen Messiah.

    Such an ending is consistent with the rest of the film which, barring a very low key feeding of the five thousand, omits the miracles almost entirely, continuing the approach Rossellini adopted in Atti Degli Apostoli, Stromboli, Viaggio in Italia amongst others. It is not denying the miraculous necessarily, but almost placing the viewer in the moment of its occurrence, almost unable to tell yet that something miraculous has happened. Only on reflection do we work out what has happened. Perhaps Rossellini's view was that miracles too represented a form of power, which as the fall of countless faith healers over the years has indicated, can also corrupt, In reality God may well be present with us, but his presence, and yes his transforming, renewing power, is not always discernible at the the time.

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    • At 7:18 am, March 29, 2013, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Excellent work, sir! I particularly appreciate your thoughts on Rossellini's treatment of the miraculous. It reminds me of Pasolini, though even more restrained. Scorsese also mostly avoids grandeur in the realm of miracles. What is it with thee Italians? ;)

      One question, though, that I think I've asked you before: My DVD of this film lacks English subtitles (making your recounting of the film's events even more illuminating!). Any idea where I can find a copy that has them? Am I stuck with pricey VHS copies for the time being?

      Thanks again, sir. I always appreciate your insights.


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