• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Sunday, October 14, 2018

    Jésus de Nazareth (1942)

    Having posted a week or two ago about the earliest remaining Jesus film I thought this would be as good a time as any to review a film I've been wanting to cover for some time, the earliest Mexican Jesus film Jésus de Nazareth (1942)

    The film was made in the aftermath of Mexico's Cristerio War - a Catholic uprising against the anti-Catholic restrictions brought in President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928). Whilst the war ended in 1929, the year after Calles left office, the restrictions on public expressions of faith were not really relaxed until the late 1930s. In 1940 a professed Catholic President Manuel Ávila Camacho came to power and called for filmmakers to deal with religious subjects in their work (Bermea). The film's director José Díaz Morales had worked as screenwriter and director in Spain before fleeing the civil war and emigrating to Mexico (Perez).

    Read through this lens, the film's selection of material and portrayal of the religious and political establishments Jesus faces is fascinating. For a start the film omits the stories of Jesus' birth and resurrection. The film both starts and ends accompanied by the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, which supplies a religiosity when the script does not dare. Jesus arrives as a man - initially seen only as a poor reflection on the water rather than a sold figure - in the presence of John the Baptist and when the "voice from Heaven" is heard affirming Jesus after his baptism the camera is in close up such that it's impossible to judge if this is a public pronouncement heard by everyone, or just a voice in Jesus' head. Similarly the film's final shot, following straight after the crucifixion is a medium shot of Jesus. Whilst this Jesus is alive and certainly not the dust-covered peasant who has been wandering round the countryside, it's unclear if this more pristine Jesus is a resurrected Jesus, an ascended Jesus, or just Jesus as portrayed by the church.

    Equally ambiguous is the portrayal of the miracles. There are but two, but then this is a relatively short film. It's 85 minutes include several minutes of introduction by an official church figure leaving just 80 minutes for Jesus birth, ministry and death. These two, the healing of a blind man and the raising of Lazarus reflect the film's preference for John's gospel (which is the only one to include the raising of Lazarus and also contains healing of a blind man amongst its few signs). Even more significant, perhaps, is a moment when Jesus, surrounded by the lame and the blind turns his attention instead to the woman caught in adultery. As he does so the disciples move in so that Jesus is physically separated from the sick in order to deal with the issue of injustice before him.

    The films portrayal of the political and religious figures is also interesting. Initially Jesus' ministry is not particularly public  there are lots of interiors or scenes in quiet village squares, but only when Jesus moves to Jerusalem and his polemics become more large scale do the authorities become uncomfortable. Even today in Mexico outdoor worship is only permitted in exceptional circumstances and with governmental permission. At first it is the Jewish religious authorities that are concerned by him - and there is a certain anti-clericalism about them. Only when they have already tried Jesus and found him guilty do the secular Roman authorities get involved.

    The portrayal of the Jewish leaders is, sadly, fairly anti-Semitic. In addition to them being blamed for Jesus' death, Caiaphas the chief priest is also depicted with a hat resembling a devil-like pair of horns. This matches the similarly troubling portrayal of Judas, visually resembling stereotypical negative images of Jewish people than any of Jesus' other disciples, most notably as he rubs his hands in glee at the prospect of selling his master off for 30 pieces of silver. The scene where he objects to a woman anointing Jesus also shows him voicing his objection not publicly as in the text, but in a whisper to a Pharisee - again linking his betrayal with his greed.

    However, that scene is one of a number that have a positive role for women. Indeed whilst the film only contains three miracles, it does display a strong preference for the episodes from the gospels that involving female characters. This is notable even from the credits where Adriana Lamar gets top billing as Mary Magdalene, even ahead of the Argentine actor José Cibrián who was playing the role of Jesus. Lamar's Magdalene does not feature particularly prominently, but it is notable that she is a wealthy woman and significantly not the woman caught in adultery. When she witnesses Jesus letting the little children come to him she is converted and, as with DeMille's film fifteen years earlier Mary's conversion results in her immediately covering herself up.

    In addition to the scenes involving Magdalene, there is a lengthy scene of the woman at the Samaritan well, as well as separate roles for Mary and Martha, Veronica, an unnamed courtesan, and the woman caught in adultery. Furthermore, whilst most of the stations on the road to the cross are omitted, Jesus does stop to deliver the warning to the woman of Jerusalem from Luke 23 and his mother and Magdalene are shown prominently at his crucifixion.

    What none of this captures is the beauty of the compositions, the startling black and white imagery and the film's quietly stripped down sincerity. The woman at the well scene is particularly striking with its graceful establishing shot and its combination of close-ups and a variety of shots as the conversation develops. And the film's numerous close-ups are all the more engaging thanks to  Cibrián sensitive but restrained performance. He is not the classically good looking hero that has typified in so many of the American Jesus' that have followed. Instead there's compassion and a deep mournfulness in the eyes of this introverted Jesus. The clearing of the temple scene is another gem: an opening tracking shot that captures four or five brief stories in a wordless thirty seconds; a patient pacing that focuses on the sounds of the animals rather than the human activity; and the moment that Cibrián's Jesus goes from tenderly stroking a tethered lamb to transforming the rope that bound him into a whip to scatter its abusers.

    In a way much of Morales' film draws on DeMille but it also points the way towards Pasolini. And whilst the revolutionary edge of that film is a little more restrained here it's quietness and restraint make for a more thoughtful approach to the subject than so many that would follow in its wake.
    Peréz, Aurelio (2012) "El Evangelio según el cine" at zocalo.com.mx. Available online



    • At 7:01 am, October 20, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      The depiction of Judas does indeed sound troubling, but the depiction of the high priests sounds just fine. Who made Caiaphas the representative of "semitism"?

    • At 9:05 am, October 22, 2018, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comment.

      I guess the answer to the "Who" question is probably "the filmmakers" in this case. Jesus' interactions with Jewish people here are pretty limited. They're either people who basically become his followers, or they are an angry mob wanting to stone a woman, or they are the authorities planning to kill Jesus and wearing hats with horns. And I think given the historic context that's a real problem.



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