• 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


    Monday, July 03, 2017

    Io sono con te (Let It Be, 2010)

    In contrast to films such as the BBC's The Nativity, which uses a romance between Mary and Joseph to drive the plot, Guido Chiesa's Io sono con te (which literally means 'I am with you') is possibly the first feature length Nativity film which chooses not depict the holy couple as in love. There is affection and respect, but ultimately this is not so much their story, as her story.

     In part this is because Joseph is so much older than Mary. Mary is played by a 15 year old Tunisian actor Nadia Khlifi who looks even younger which would make any kind of romantic attachment rather uncomfortable for modern viewers. Whilst "there's nothing ethereal or other worldly (or even conventionally beautiful) about her", (Haven 2011) Khlifi manages to exude an unusual mix of vulnerability and strength, often defying the patriarchy that dominates her village.

    This patriarchy is very much a defining part of the village's life which is portrayed here in ways radically different from the traditional biblical epic. For one thing all the characters in this film look they, like Khlifi, might have roots in the Middle East. The film was shot in Tunisia - parts of it on the very sets that Roberto Rossellini used for his Jesus film Il Messia (The Messiah, 1975) - and the majority of the cast and extras were chosen from the region. This has been an increasing trend in recent biblical films. As Peter Chattaway, writing about the choice of Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary in The Nativity Story (2006), observes
    "Gone are the days when blue-eyed, blonde-haired actors and actresses could pass themselves off as the Jewish Messiah or his immediate friends and family. Audiences expect more “authenticity” these days, and filmmakers eager to promote their films as something new and different are more than willing to provide it. 
    Even Mel Gibson, who faced a firestorm of controversy over allegedly anti-Semitic elements in The Passion of the Christ, made a point of altering the appearance of actor James Caviezel (through make-up, and by digitally turning his eyes from blue to brown) in order to make his Jesus look more Jewish."
    Since then the trend has only accentuated with Jesus recently having been portrayed by Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman in Killing Jesus (2015), half-Tamil Selva Rasalingam in The Gospel of Mark (2016) and Israeli actor Aviv Alush in The Shack (2017).1

    But as well as the actors' ethnicity being worthy of note, their costumes and the manner in which their way of life is portrayed is similar significant. Gone is the pale blue linen wraps so beloved of screen Marys. Here she wears various long, brightly-coloured, striped woollen kaftan-type garments. Almost all characters have their heads covered most of the time, Joseph, for example wears a tallit for a great deal of the film.

    It is Mary’s strength, particularly with respect to her strong sense of morality, that is very much one of the key themes that this film is exploring. It’s hardly surprising, then that the film has been praised for its feminist credentials. However, an independently minded Mary is hardly original in and of itself. The same could be said of Keisha Castles-Hughes in The Nativity Story (2006). What makes Io sono so notable in this respect is that rather her defiance being against her parenting, or those who question her purity, here the film pits her against numerous aspects of both the Jewish religion and a wider Middle Eastern culture. In particular the practice of circumcision comes in for heavy criticism, most memorably in a scene where another baby is circumcised. The scene consists of a fast montage where, in a similar fashion to Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Psycho (1960) numerous short shots are spliced together to create the impression that you see an incision, whereas in fact yo do not. Io sono both borrows this technique, but also draws on it’s heritage reflecting the horror that Mary feels at the practice. It is not insiginifcant that Chiesa's website contains a link to the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centres.

    As far as the film is concerned, Mary's strong sense of morality means that Jesus is uncircumcised. That could be taken as pre-figuring the way Jesus' followers would soon remove the requirement to be circumcised from their newly founded religion. Yet at the same time as appreciating the point that Chiesa seems to be trying to make about the inappropriateness of the practice in the modern world, I'm also a little troubled by him portraying a non-circumcised saviour. Jewish-Christian history is littered with examples of the terrible consequences that have occurred when Christians have overlooked some of the markers of Jesus' Jewish identity and circumcision is undoubtedly a key one of those. At the same time, the film does such a lot to emphasise Jesus' Jewishness, from the mezuzah on most of the characters door posts, to the head coverings, portrayals of the synagogue, actors ethnicity, scriptures cited and, actually, the intra-religious discussion about the finer points of the law. Which is to say portraying an uncircumcised Jesus might be a problem were it not for the fact that few, if any, films come close to Io sono in their portrayal of Jesus as a Jew.

    That aside, circumcision is just one of the many bloody acts that Mary is appalled by. The spectacle of animal sacrifice circles her throughout the film with numerous appearances of sheep and goats punctuating the film. Indeed even the annunciation, such as it is, takes place whilst Mary is milking goats. Later she witnesses one giving birth and others being slaughtered in the temple. Numerous other images of animals with such Girardian overtones appear throughout the film. Little wonder then that the words of Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (later repeated by Jesus), are amongst those that Mary draws upon during the film.

    The film also shows Mary refusing to partake in the political violence portrayed by the film, be it the Romans/Herod's soldiers strong arming the local populace, or Jewish rebels seeking to avenge it. When the rebels begin to try and gain support Mary leads her family, and particularly Joseph's other son, away.

    But Mary does not just stand against physical acts of violence. One of the key rules that Mary disregards entirely is an apparent taboo on feeding new-borns their mother's milk for the first few days of their lives. This rule, which is not found in the Bible emphasises that the form of Judaism that Mary, and by extension, the filmmakers, find objectionable is an unorthodox variety, suggesting that not all forms of Judaism should be treated in the same fashion.

    Mary, and later Jesus, are also appalled by the ostracisation of a man called Hillel (whose liberal historical namesake is best known for coining the "golden rule"). For reasons that are never made clear, Hillel is permanently considered unclean and forced to live so far away from the village that he cannot walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath without breaking. Initially Mary and eventually Jesus refuse to conform and visit Hillel at his house, eventually encouraging him to attend the synagogue. Jesus objects when he is told to leave, but only succeeds in convincing the rabbi to change the reason that Hillel has to leave. It's another indicator of the strict purity rules that exist in the fictional Mary's village and of which the majority would have confronted the historical Mary and Jesus as well. And again it's the kind of scape-goating that is very familiar to those that know Girard's work.

    The fact that Chiesa's film is an exploration of Girard's philosophy is something that the director confirmed in an email to Girard scholar Cynthia Haven, a section of which she included in her review of the film:
    "René Girard‘ s work was a great source of inspiration for our project and it helped us a great deal during the writing of the script and the understanding of several Biblical passages about Mary and Jesus’ s childhood" (Haven)
    If biblical epics are a vehicle for big themes and concerns, then Girard's unending cycle of violence is hard to top.

    Even more interestingly than this, is the way the film seems to want to extend this revulsion at this form of Judaism beyond its characters to its audience. The final part of the film concerns the period when Jesus is twelve. The circle of life has completed another revolution; Jesus is now the age as his mother was at the beginning of the film. He sits there and listens to one of the religious leaders recounting the time Moses commanded a man to be stoned to death for collecting wood on the Sabbath. To modern ears it is an horrific story that rightly belongs to the distant past. Here it is presented without bias, comment or reaction. It would be there for the viewers to make up their minds, except, for the fact that shorn of its original context, no modern viewer could find it acceptable.

    But of course, in Jesus' day this was still the law and the story's presence here is a jarring reminder of the context into which Jesus and Mary came. Typically, biblical films transport us into a world that purports to be the past, but really resembles our own far more than it ought to, what Sobceck describes as the "projection of ourselves-now as we-then". (Sobcheck, 284) Here, however, and throughout the film, Chiesa has given us an emotive reminder of how very different the past was from our own time.

    1 - This is for New Testament films made by westerners. Clearly films such as the Iranian films Saint Mary (1997) and Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007) have been employing Middle Eastern actors for some time.

    Chattaway, Peter T. (2006), "Ethnicity in Jesus Films: Does it Matter?" FilmChat, 24 November 2006. Available online - http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2006/11/ethnicity-in-jesus-films-does-it-matter.html Accessed 3 July 2017.

    Chiesa, Guido (2010), Io Sono con Te: La Storia Della Ragazza Che ha Cambiato del Mondo. Magda Film, Colorado Film RAI Cinema. Available Online - http://guidochiesa.net/media/opera/nicoletta-micheli-filippo-kalomenidis-e-guido-chiesa/io-sono-con-te/pressbook.pdf Accessed 2 July 2017.

    Haven, Cynthia (2011), "Io Sono Con Te: A film with a René Girard p.o.v.", 21 February 2011. Book Haven. Avaliable Online - http://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2011/02/io-sono-con-te-a-film-with-a-rene-girard-p-o-v/ Accessed 2 July 2017

    Sobchack, Vivian (1995), '"Surge and Splendour": A Phenomology of the Hollywood Historical Epic', in Grant, Barry Keith, Film Genre Reader II, 280-307, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

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