• 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, June 11, 2019

    A Child Called Jesus (1987)

    To those of us used to modern biographies, the paucity of information about the first thirty or so years of Jesus' life seems rather strange. Only half the gospels even mention his birth, and only one mentions any incident that happens to him between infancy and the start of his ministry. At least some of our ancestors shared our bemusement at this. Additional, non-canonical writings spring up in the following centuries such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Protevangelium of James which different parts of the church treat with varying level of respect or scepticism.

    It's proved a more fertile subject for recent artists too. In the US, 2016's The Young Messiah was itself an adaptation of Anne Rice's earlier "Christ the Lord" series of novels, whilst other films such as Jesus (1999) and La sacra famiglia (The Holy Family, 2006) have also sought to fill some of these puzzling silences.

    Perhaps the most significant of the 'recent' films to explore this period in Jesus' life is the 1987 mini-series A Child Called Jesus (Un bambino nome Gesù). An Italian and American co-production it follows a common practice of dubbing sound back onto the visual footage back in the studio, meaning the American version was dubbed, and not particularly brilliantly. It makes it hard to find a version in better (but still not perfectly) dubbed Italian with subtitles.

    The film starts dramatically in Bethlehem, moments before Herod's soldiers arrive. The film's first words are literally Joseph being told to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, and in following scene we see an almost distressing pallid Herod being dipped into and out of a huge bath of Arabian mud, fearing the prophecy from Micah 5:2 about a ruler coming from Bethlehem, despite the slaughter he has carried out seeking to prevent it.

    There's a jump forward seven years, but whereas Young Messiah chose around this time to send Jesus and his parents back from Egypt to Galilee, here we find that they have not yet even properly reached Egypt yet, instead they have built a new life in a town on the border between Egypt and what a subtitle calls "Palestine". Director Franco Rossi (who also directed RAI's version of Quo Vadis? two years earlier) captures the uneasy feel of a border town, not least in a scene where a rebel zealot seems to be grooming child soldiers to fight the Romans).

    The comparatively safe life Jesus' family have found there though is about to come to an end, however. Unfortunately a fictional character called Sefir (though he sometimes calls himself Nathan Ben Joab) is pleased to have finally tracked them down. Sefir, who is played by Pierre Clémenti, who once had the role of Jesus himself in Philippe Garrel's Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), claims variously to be Syrian, or from Qumran, or perhaps to have been one of the original battalion of soldiers that Herod dispatched to Bethlehem.

    Whatever his origins, he is determined to catch up with Jesus and his parents and finish what he started 7 years ago. Firstly he builds an alliance with a Roman commander called Titus Rufus. Then he employs a killer called Chela, who turns up dead when his attempt to bury Jesus under an avalanche of rock fails. Jesus, it is implied, only survives because of his mother's desperate prayers for him. Sefir tries to blame Joseph, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that this isn't true. For Joseph this is the clear sign of the need for decisive action. Despite recently accepting a lucrative contract making some benches for the local synagogue, he decides to take his family properly into Egypt, to Alexandria.

    It's around this point that we begin to see the first of a number of surprising flashes forward to events during Jesus' ministry. Though it's a little unclear at first as to what exactly Jesus is witnessing these echoes from the future, it gradually that he is experiencing these visions, even if he doesn't know that he himself is the character appearing in them. The first time it's Jesus' question to the disciples "Who do you say that I am"?, but later we will get flashes of his healing Jairus' daughter, the miraculous catch of fish, the Wedding at Cana, Gethsemane and finally his burial. There are also a few indications that some of his later teaching imagery was picked up during his childhood (when a shepherd tells him of his willingness to leave the 99 sheep to find the lost one, for example).

    The other element of Jesus ministry that is foreshadowed here is his supposed rejection of some of the established areas of Jewish practice. At one point surprised at the complexities of lighting a lamp in the correct way he says "If lighting a lamp is complicated it would be easier if people would sit under the moon". Shortly afterwards we see him sizing up a money-changer, as if already wise to the possibility that he might be shortchanging his customers. Most strikingly, when Joseph suggests buying a dove to sacrifice in the temple Jesus objects, saying "but doesn't Almighty God prefer to hear his birds alive, greeting the morning?" What's clear is that Jesus is a strongly opinionated child, who, at least initially, his mother is finds a little troublesome. Gradually through the course of the film she stops chiding him and starts listening and respecting him.

    Much of this could be seen as anti-Judaism, yet the film is very clear about Jesus' Jewishness. As well as constantly showing Jesus, Joseph and Mary in and out of synagogues and temples, essential connections between his family and the other Jews are made in every community they encounter. At one point we see a Jewish religious meeting and witness a reading of the Ecclesiastes 3 passage about the passing of time. Particularly surprising is the scenes where the Holy Family join in with the Feast of the Tabernacles.

    In addition to portraying various Jewish rituals, it also evokes some early Christian, but not biblical, texts as well, most notably an incident found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus creates a bird out of the clay. It's not Jesus' only miracle, however, in another scene, towards the end of the film where Jesus himself is just starting to become aware of his powers, we see him heal a female leper. There's even a suggestion that after Jesus and Mary have been separated from Joseph, after he is thought to have been killed in a fire, that Jesus is involved in reuniting them.

    If the dubbing is the worst element of the film then its visuals are certainly the best, even on the somewhat blurry/grainy copy on DVD. Rossi's camera frames the natural beauty of the locations beautifully, even in its native narrowscreen. It helps of course using some of the same locations as Rossellini used in Il Messia (1975).

    Whilst his interiors are a little less striking there are still some nice looking shots, not least the views of the desert and the film's stunning visual climax. But Rossi also utilises several nice motifs such as using background objects to create halos at various points. Another of his motifs is framing eyes behind/through wooden lattices. This device is used several times, especially of Mary. It's something that could be interpreted almost romantically, an observation my friend Peter Chattaway makes regarding similar framing in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    However, it's notable that eyes are mentioned a few other times as well. One particularly notable incident hears one of the adults asks Jesus not to look at him with his "puppy dog eyes". In some ways I can't help but wonder if this is a retort to another Italian Jesus-film-maker called Franco. Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was famous for Robert Powell's azure, unblinking eyes. Here Rossi voices the concern that eyes can have influential power, though it also enables those feeling its pull to escape them. Perhaps most significant, given the prevalence of eyes in this film are the only words I recall the boy Jesus speaking that are recognisable from the Gospels. Towards the end of the film, Jesus speaks from Matt 6:22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light".

    Ultimately, of course, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are all united and end up back in Nazareth. That's not so much a spoiler as to say simply that whilst the film is almost entirely invention, it does not contradict the specific things the Bible does say about Jesus' childhood. Jesus and his family return home with plenty of time before Jesus gets lost in Jerusalem. It must have been tempting to include that story in this film, but it's to the film's credit that it has strong enough convictions about what it is trying to do that it avoids it. It's perhaps a little overlong and you have to put up with the dubbing, but it poses some interesting questions and serves up some great images as well.

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