• 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


    Saturday, July 04, 2020

    Black Jesus (1968)
    Seduto alla sua destra/Out of the Darkness

    This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo's independence from Belgium. Belgium's relationship with the Congo has been back in the headlines in recent weeks after recent Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the toppling of statues of former king, Leopold II, who was responsible for 10 millions deaths in the former colony in the late Victorian era. On Wednesday the current monarch, Leopold's descendant King Philippe expressed regret for "painful episodes" and the "injuries of the past".

    Congo's transition to independence is the subject of one of the more explicit Christ figure films, Black Jesus (1968) by Italian director Valerio Zurlini. The title, which was added for the film's American release several years after it originally debuted at Cannes (Kinnard and Davis, 167), puts a strong interpretative slant on the film which was less forceful in the original Italian title Seduto alla sua destra (Sitting at the right hand). However, the original English title Out of Darkness combined with its setting in DRC during Belgian colonialism and its theme of the savage nature of supposedly civilised Europeans closely align it to Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella "The Heart of Darkness".

    Moreover, like other Italian productions of the era, the film was original intended as just one part of a four-segment composite Vangelo '70. The three other segments saw Carlo Lizzani's take on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Bernardo Bertolucci's adaptation of the barren fig tree and Pier Paolo Pasolini's La sequenza del fiore di carta (The Sequence of the Paper Flower) featuring a man so lost in his bliss that he is deaf to God's calls to respond to the misfortune around him. When Zurlini's material proved to be too long it was recut into a film in its own right, while the original project replaced Zurlini's material with shorter films by Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellocchio and was released as Amore e rabbia (Love and Anger, 1969).

    Both the biblical nature of the original project and the film's evolving title give a heavy indication of the allegorical element of the film, but the plot itself is a fictionalised retelling of the death of DRC's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba came to power following his victory in DRC's 1960s elections and the subsequent granting of its independence on the 30th June. Just ten days later Belgium sent in troops to protect its citizens (who were still resident in the country) and, at the start of September, Lumumba was dismissed by DRC's new president. A military coup followed on the 14th September 1960 and shortly after Lumumba was confined to his home. Two months later he left his home to tour the villages in a bid to regain power but was arrested after four days. In Feb 1961 the military government announced his escape and three days later reported he had been killed by villagers, but even at the time this was viewed as a cover up.

    While Zurlini's film named its lead, played by athlete-turned-actor Woody Strode, "Lalubi" the resemblances are unmistakable, even in an era when Lumumba's reputation was still in flux. Originally released just seven years after the events portrayed, the change of name allowed a little room for manoeuvre. As is typical of  Zurlini's work he eliminated "all unnecessary elements, including aspects of the historical and spatial context" (Brunetta, 237). 

    The film opens zooming in on a poster offering a rewards for Lalubi's capture accompanied by the sounds of machine gun, There's a cut to crowds listening intently to Lalubi at night. The script (by Zurlini and Franco Brusati) cleverly combines Lumumba's words with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and commissioning his followers ("Destiny has chosen the meek to defeat the strong", "Whoever saves food, let him divide it, whoever has plenty, let him give to those who have lost everything"). Various shots of Lalubi rallying in a series of remote locations are intercut with scenes of white soldiers scouring Congolese villages as the reward money offered by the wanted poster rapidly increases. Remote sounds on the soundtrack give way to the sound of violent machine guns, human cries and crackling fires as the soldiers tighten the net around Lalubi. Eventually a Judas figure discloses his master's location to a Colonel in the Belgian army. Up to this point, Lalubi's face has been hidden from us. Now it is shown in close-up, the start of a sequence of three such shots overlaying Lalubi's face first with that of his eventual executioner (as he steps into the darkness), and then by one of Oreste who at this point is unknown to us.

    That final shot in the sequence ends the extended prologue, and moves to the location where most of its action will take place, inside an improvise army base where Lalubi's interrogation and torture will take place. From the start of the film the claustrophobic inside world is contrasted with the apparent freedom of the wide open space outside. There's repeated use of doorways, where the high contrast between the bright sun outside and the silhouettes of those inside signify characters moving from light into darkness. We first encounter Lalubi being forced down a set of steps, as if descending into hell. The shot is taken from the angle of Oreste - a fellow prisoner whose torture prefigures that which Lalubi will receive and who quickly forms a strong bond with Lalubi. Whilst the torture scenes, the most horrific violence is left off camera, conveyed instead by the subjects horrific screams. This is particularly harrowing in the case of Lalubi's screams later in the film which echo through the makeshift prison, terrifying Oreste, whose reactions match our own.

    Indeed Oreste stands in for the audience. Like the majority of the intended audience he is a white Italian and like Lalubi his role is also composite. Historically he corresponds to one of  Lumumba's two colleagues who were also taken into custody, but he also corresponds to one of the two thieves executed at the same time as Jesus. The precise reason he is in prison is unclear but he is drawn to Lalubi/Jesus from the start and rapidly becomes a caring and protective figure for the would be spiritual/political messiah. Later in the film a second "bad thief" is also imprisoned with Lalubi and Oreste. Oreste's name, however also recalls the Greek Hero Orestes and perhaps Aeschylus' trilogy on the subject which contrasts revenge with justice and which Zurlini's friend Pasolini was looking to adapt in an African context.

    The structure of this main section of Black Jesus is fairly simple. Oreste is tortured. Lalubi is brought down an interviewed by the Colonel. Oreste and Lalubi are placed in the same cell and strike a bond with one another. Lalubi is tortured and returned to his cell, Oreste tries to comfort and look after his now battered friend.

    Each of these five scenes is masterfully executed, from the distressed, bleached white crumbling plaster on the walls and enticing diagonal compositions to the dialogue which impresses even in the English language dub. Oreste's interrogation features plenty of low angles and fast editing in contrast to the relatively civilised discussion between Lalubi and the Colonel who offers to release Lalubi if only he will sign a declaration rejecting those who fight to defend him and his cause. 

    This scene, in particular, crackles. Strode does not particularly resemble Lumumba, but he makes for a striking Christ-figure, strong yet polite, sharp-witted and erudite but physically tough. He exudes a calm that never compromises his passion or clarity of focus. His opponent in this scene makes for a world weary Pontius Pilate. In one sense Lalubi is utterly in his power and you don't need to have much knowledge of European oppression in central African countries to know how things are going to turn out. Yet in another sense lacks any power whatsoever over his prisoner, and he knows it. Having seen his halfhearted attempts to bribe Lalubi with his freedom fall flat, he attempts to outwit him. "When white men abandon these countries what happens? I'll tell you. They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo" the Colonel argues. "If Africa is like that Colonel, either you never taught us anything, or it would have been better if you hadn't" comes Lalubi's dismantling reply.

    The real strength in the portrayal of the Colonel is the way it decodes the typical portrayal of Pontius Pilate. Despite various sources describing Pilate as a vicious tyrant, he always seems to come out as a compromised everyman. He's weak, but under tremendous pressure. Here the Colonel is the same. An easy figure for the audience to relate to. But the reality is that he is a monster, The colonial racism and white supremacy in the quote above. The willingness to have his prisoner tortured even though he knows it will change nothing. When a senior African figure - presumably modelled on the leader of the military coup and future president Joseph Mobutu - orders him to have Lalubi killed he offers little resistance and passes on the order. He's the kind of man who is happy to have a cosy chat with a victim before getting someone else to do his dirty work for him. 

    Yet for most of this interchange it is only the violence of Lalubi's supporters which is debated. The Colonel blames Lalubi for the deaths of Belgian soldiers, When the prime minister replies "I'm not a man of war and I hate violence", he counters "it ought to be consoling for their mothers to find out that this is the action of men who are 'peace loving'". Lalubi's reply, however cuts to the heart of the issue highlighting these soldiers complicity in oppressing those native to the Congo: "You can tell their mothers their sons died here and not in Belgium."   

    It is here where the film's presentation of Lalubi as an intermediary between Jesus and Lumumba is at its starkest. On the one hand it includes the film's strongest association between its hero and the historical figure of Lumumba. The Colonel quotes Lalubi's words "We're not your monkeys any longer". While these words are widely held to be a rebuke Lumumba delivered to Belgium's then ruler King Baudouin on Congolese Independence Day, there's little evidence he actually said it (Baugh 92-93). The film references this ambiguity, and the broader mythology that built up around Lumumba, by not only having the Colonel say it rather than Lalubi, but also by having Lalubi debunk various aspects of the mythology that is building up around him. Given that this has increased significantly in the years since his death, particularly since the start of the century, the film is almost prophetic in the way it highlights the widening gap between popular perception and historical reality. That such a divide is often claimed between the historical character of Jesus and the 'Christ of faith' seems unlikely to be coincidence. The film implicitly questions the reliability of the Gospels as a source of truth about Jesus. 

    Not dissimilarly at one point the Colonel asks if he is a "witch doctor" based on Lalubi's intuitive feelings about his captor, but Lalubi denies it. There's very little indication of the miraculous or supernatural in Black Jesus and when it does arise it is either directly contradicted, as here, or open to interpretation. Perhaps most striking in this respect is the film's epilogue. Having not only murdered Lalubi, but also the two other prisoners who witness his demise, the soldiers drive on, only to have their path blocked by a small boy dressed in a pristine white sheet. Following their logic to its grim conclusion they fire a machine gun at him as he turns to flee, but he remains unharmed. The soldiers stop shooting and watch him disappear into the background, though whether it is because they "have been transformed by the transcendent mystery of life beyond death" as Baugh claims (110) or simply because the effort to track him down, combined with the a realisation of the immorality of doing so, seems unlikely to be worthwhile.

    Certainly there is a hint of the angelic about this figure. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Dornford-May's more well-known African Jesus film Jezile (Son of Man, 2006) also portrays angels as small boys similarly attired. The way he runs into the vanishing point clouded by smoke only enhances that interpretation, but perhaps he to is (partially?) responsible for the truth about Lalubi/Lumumba eventually coming to light, or the symbol of hope for the future for the newly liberated nation. Incidentally this does not appear to be the only influence on Son of Man. The shaved head of that film's Jezile, the shots of murdered villagers by government officials and, most tellingly, the shot of a Pieta composition taking place in the back of a truck all seem to reference Zurlini's film.

    Despite undoubted good intentions, both films also share slightly problematic depictions of sub-Saharan Africa. While both films could be described as presenting an African Jesus both are the product of white, European directors. In Black Jesus it seems significant that despite the known interference and political pressure from Belgium and the US, the character at the top of the power-structure is the African Mobutu figure, who is presented as utterly ruthless and entirely dismissive of the Colonel's qualms. While the Colonel corresponds with the Pilate of popular and artistic imaginations, it is the Mobutu figure who represents the historical Pilate. Lalubi may counter the Colonel's statement that "when white men abandon these countries...They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo" but he does not entirely dismantle it and the later ruthlessness of the senior African figure also seems to support the problematic trope that still exists today that in the absence of white rule, Africans turn to bloodshed.

    Similarly whilst the setting of Jezile is never made explicit, numerous factors suggest South Africa, yet it is a South Africa where white colonialism seems entirely absent. West describes the film as "one set in a post-liberation South Africa, with the dream of the 'new' South Africa and its 'rainbow nation' in tatters...one more example of Afro-pessimism" (427). Both films portray an Africa that once given over to black rule has become mired in corruption, chaos and bloodshed, rather than one enjoying the benefits of its freedom and liberation. 

    Furthermore Kinnard and David cite an uncredited reviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times (it sounds like it is probably Roger Ebert) who is concerned about its "dangerous lessons" that "black people have a beautiful nobility...that comes from being oppressed" and the film's suggestion that they "can only maintain this nobility if they remain forever passive" (167-8). Undoubtedly Strode's is a suffering saviour and Lalubi's words in the prologue though his scenes with the Colonel allow him the chance to voice his ethos and mission, in stark contrast to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). While there is some validity to these criticisms, it's also worth recalling the way his friend Pasolini was challenged about his stereotypical views of the continent by those he interviewed filming his documentary Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes toward an African Orestes) released two years later in 1970. 

    Despite such concerns overall this is a positive depiction of a subject that remains controversial, that of a Jesus with dark-skinned. Zurlini skilfully emphasises the links between Lalubi and Jesus by his compositions and symbolism which echo so much traditional iconography without slavishly rehashing overt and clichéd poses from famous religious paintings. The precise links between other works are difficult to pinpoint. Nods to Morandi and Mahler are present, but the cinematography and compositions also seem to echo much of the 1960s (white) Jesus films of Ray, Pasolini and Stevens. Moreover it lives on in the later work of Zeffirelli, Dornford-May and LaMarre,

    What is most interesting about the film is the way Lalubi is presented as an intermediary between Lumumba and Jesus. It raises "what-if" type questions without providing easy answers. Might things have been different for Lumumba if he had more closely resembled Zurlini's Prince of Peace? Today Lumumba is celebrated as a symbolic figure and for his oratory, but perhaps if he had succeeded in drawing diverse groups together his leadership may have stood a better chance. At the other side of the Lumumba-Lalubi-Jesus spectrum, the comparison highlights the political element of Jesus' life, which saw him to killed on political grounds (as "King" of the Jews) because he was seen as a political threat. The strength of Strode's performance, and the film in general is that it manages to bring these different elements together in a way that can evoke both a political and a religious optimism while also reminding us that such change rarely happens without determination, compassion and sacrifice.

    - Baugh, L. (2011). "The African Face of Jesus in Film: Part One: Valerio Zurlini's Black Jesus." Gregorianum, 92(1), 89-114. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23582561
    - Brunetta, Gian Piero (2003) The History of Italian Cinema: A Guide to Italian Film from its Origins to the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Jeremy Parzen.  Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.
    - Giordano, Rosario (2020) "The Masks of the Savage: Lumumba and the Independence of the Congo" in Matthias De Groof (ed.) Lumumba in the Arts, Leuven: Leuven University Press. pp.192-206.
    - Kinnard, Roy, and Tim Davis (1992) Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen, New York: Citadel–Carol Publishing Group.
    - West, Gerald O. (2016) The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon, Boston: Brill

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