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rossellini's the messiah (1975)


Peter T Chattaway
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Finally saw Roberto Rossellini's The Messiah (1975). It's a pretty obscure film, even among Bible-movie buffs -- it doesn't rate a mention at all in W. Barnes Tatum's otherwise fairly comprehensive Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years, for example. The first I ever heard of it was in Lloyd Baugh's Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film, which devotes ten pages to this film under the heading of "Recent Classics", and I was surprised to see it on VHS at the local Rogers Video a few years back.

I don't know much about Rossellini himself, and the only other film of his I think I've seen is Open City (1945), which I saw in film class way back in the 1980s. But a few things may be worth mentioning here. In addition to being a pioneer in the style known as "Italian neorealism", Rossellini is perhaps best-known for stealing Ingrid Bergman away from her husband -- which caused a huge scandal at the time and nearly killed Bergman's career -- and for fathering Isabella Rossellini; he also has a footnote in film history as the director of The Miracle (1948), a film about a woman who sleeps with a bum (played by Federico Fellini!) and, thinking he is a saint, assumes her pregnancy is a miracle; this film is noteworthy because a distributor who wanted to show the film in New York challenged the state's laws banning "sacreligious" films, which led to a landmark 1952 Supreme Court ruling that granted the cinema the same protections under the First Amendment that were already enjoyed by books and newspapers. (Before this, films were considered a mere commercial product, and were thus not entitled to freedom of expression.)

So Rossellini's early career, at least, was not without its scandals, and it is interesting to see him tackle the gospels in his later years. The Messiah was not his first biblical epic -- he also directed Acts of the Apostles for Italian TV in 1969, and this was followed by made-for-TV biopics on Socrates and Saint Augustine, etc. I do not believe those films are available on video, but I assume they were made in the same basic style in which Rossellini made The Messiah -- a "social realist" style that eschews close-ups and montage and stylized lighting etc. in favour of longer, wider shots in which people roam about the landscape and the camera pretty much stands in one place while zooming in, zooming out, and pointing this way and that. One of the interesting things about this approach is that it creates a sort of tension between the filmmaker and the more, um, unique aspects of the subject of the film, namely Jesus' life -- both in terms of the miracles he performed (which the film almost ignores) and the centrality of his own self to his own message.

Unless I missed something or forgot to write it down, I believe the only miracle that is more-or-less actually seen in the film concerns the catching of fish; Jesus' declaration to Philip that he saw him sitting under a tree, and his declaration to the Samaritan Woman that he knows how many husbands she has had, could also figure in here, I guess. These are not especially spectacular miracles -- even the catching of fish could happen to anyone on a good day -- so the focus is arguably more on Jesus' amazing knowledge than on anything he actually did. And yet there is also a scene in which the priests interrogate a man who, his parents say, was born blind but can now see; the formerly blind man describes the miracle, but we never actually see it happen. There is another scene in which the priests hear a rumour that Jesus has brought Lazarus to life, but again, we don't actually see it happen. And, most curiously, we do see Jesus tell his disciples to carry swords with them at the Last Supper, and we do see Peter say "here are two swords", and we do see Jesus say "that's enough" -- all of which is in Luke's gospel, but is not often filmed -- but we never actually see Peter USE the sword in Gethsemane, and thus we do not see Jesus tell Peter to put the sword away or heal the servant's ear, which MOST films about Jesus tend to depict. (Side note: the Gethsemane sequence also includes that bit in Mark's gospel about the man who ran away naked after the soldiers grabbed his cloak, though the guy in the film does keep his loincloth. Never seen THAT put on film before.)

The film's tendency to downplay miracles is perhaps made most explicit when John the Baptist sends his messengers to ask if Jesus is really the one he's been waiting for, and it is Peter, not Jesus, who replies by rattling off all the miracles that have taken place; Jesus then holds him back or interrupts him and tells John's messengers that the poor have been given good news. In the gospels, it is Jesus who says ALL of these things, but in the film, the saying is split between Jesus and one of his disciples, with the implication that Jesus would rather not make a big deal of his miracles -- perhaps the film even hints that Peter exaggerates all this -- and yet, is not the whole POINT of the miracles that Jesus was performing "signs" of the coming of the Kingdom? Why perform such unusual "signs" if you are not going to let people talk about them?

Jesus' sayings are given to the other characters in other ways, too, and sometimes in a more positive light. We see the disciples telling the parables and telling stories about things that Jesus has said and done, which makes sense given that Jesus did send his followers out to spread his teachings even during his lifetime, and in one scene, we even see the disciples engaged in some sort of physical labour with Jesus (dragging a net across a river, IIRC?) while he recites teachings and they repeat these teachings. Some of the re-attributions are a bit iffier, though, IMHO. NONE of the seven things Jesus says on the cross in the gospels makes it into this film -- except for one saying that is given to both Mary and to one of his disciples ("...they know not what they do").

It is interesting to see how this film plays up the Jewishness of both Jesus and his opponents. After an evening of plotting against Jesus, the Pharisees who leave the one Pharisee's house take their sweet time reciting various blessings as they go out the door. But Jesus and his followers, too, recite various prayers; e.g. in Gethsemane, they recite a prayer which says things like, "If the Lord had takes uf out of bondage and not taken us to Sinai, that would be enough; and if the Lord had taken us to Sinai and not given us the Law, that would be enough; and if the Lord had given us the Law and not taken us to the Promised Land, that would be enough," etc., and at the end of this recitation, they say how marvelous it is that God has given Israel all these things. (Side note: the film gives dates for the various events and uses the term "Era Volgare", which is translated in the English subtitles as "Common Era" -- another nod to Jewish sensitivities, or common Italian usage?)

And speaking of Israel, the first 14 minutes of this 145-minute film are actually all about the Old Testament, not the New. The film begins with the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land and their subjugation under the Philistines and their demand for a king that they can call their own. The main focus here is on Samuel's denunciation of their request, and what I found odd was the way Samuel (or the narrator?) quotes that line from Judges about how "there was no king and every man did what was right in his own eyes" as though that were a GOOD thing. The narrator then goes on to say that King Saul led the Israelites into war and the "peaceful" tribes eventually went to war against each other, and for the first time brother fought against brother ... uh, hello? Judges, anyone? Don't the Israelites fight amongst themselves a fair deal in there, and is it not in that chaotic context that the author makes his comment about there being no king and every man doing what was right in his own eyes?

This emphasis on the problems with kingship persists for the first hour and then some of the film, especially in John the Baptist's exchanges with Herod Antipas. Rather than yell at the king as Charlton Heston did (and oh so well) in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) or as Michael York would do in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), the Baptist of THIS film smiles beatifically at the king and says things like "All men are equal. There are no differences" while talking like Henry David Thoreau about how his spirit is free so who cares whether his body is in chains. (This scene is followed by one of Mary describing the Kingdom of Heaven to a young boy and saying, "It will be enough when everyone loves one another, when there are no enemies.") But after that, the kingship theme pretty much fades away, and we are left with the brotherhood theme. When someone asks one of the disciples if it's true that Jesus calls himself "Son of God", the disciple replies by quoting Psalm 82:6 to the effect that all people are "gods", "brothers", whatever. Something similar to this exchange does occur in John 10:31-39, but there, Jesus quotes this psalm to underscore his own divinity, not to emphasize the brotherhood of men, and in the original psalm itself, it's not clear whether these "gods" are actual gods or just ancient kings, who were sometimes referred to as "sons of god" ("I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High.' But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler"); at any rate, the psalm doesn't seem to be referring to ALL of humanity there.

So, to sum up, it's an interesting film, though not my favorite in this genre. Baugh says the film has to be understood within the context of Rossellini's later, "didactic" films, and he says the actor playing Jesus recites his words "in a formal and slightly archaic tone, almost as if removed from the events, almost like the words of an oratorio, declaimed by actors seated on stools on an empty stage," and that sounds close enough. FWIW, he also notes that, because Jesus is almost always doing something else when he teaches (like working on a bit of carpentry), it has the effect of making his teachings seem less dogmatic than in a film like Pasolini's, where Jesus' face and voice command our attention.

Hmmm. Baugh says the film also depicts the multiplication of the loaves -- I remember seeing Jesus hand some bread out, but I don't remember seeing it multiply. Chalk up another example of Rossellini's extreme subtlety when it comes to the miracle pericopes, I guess.

And now I'm off to go read MattPage's comments ...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Hurray - I'm glad you finally got to watch this. Thanks for the long post as well. I felt I got more from your review here than I did from Baugh's - so thanks.

most curiously, we do see Jesus tell his disciples to carry swords with them at the Last Supper, and we do see Peter say "here are two swords", and we do see Jesus say "that's enough" -- all of which is in Luke's gospel, but is not often filmed -- but we never actually see Peter USE the sword in Gethsemane, and thus we do not see Jesus tell Peter to put the sword away or heal the servant's ear, which MOST films about Jesus tend to depict. (Side note: the Gethsemane sequence also includes that bit in Mark's gospel about the man who ran away naked after the soldiers grabbed his cloak, though the guy in the film does keep his loincloth. Never seen THAT put on film before.)
I most appreciated how this one did parts of the gospels that are generally absent from all the others. I must admit I'd forgotten about the sword bits. I find those verses very bizarre in the gospels, so I'm glad they at least got covered here.
Jesus then holds him back or interrupts him and tells John's messengers that the poor have been given good news. In the gospels, it is Jesus who says ALL of these things, but in the film, the saying is split between Jesus and one of his disciples, with the implication that Jesus would rather not make a big deal of his miracles -- perhaps the film even hints that Peter exaggerates all this
Yeh I missed this. Overall though I like the fact tht the disciples pass on some of the things written in the gospels as being from Jesus & that we see him teaching them stuff. I suppose what we actually have in the gospel accounts is the "apostles" telling us those stories rather than Jesus directly. I did a study a couple of years back on Matthew's gospel and I rememberr it being the first time I thought to really listen to what "Matthew" was saying like I do when reading Paul, rather than just hearing Jesus.

I think this all tied into a more believable way of Jesus, his disciples, and other people interacting with him. I thinkthe impression is generally put across that Jesus did a couple of miracles and then eveyone followed him. I'm not sure how realistic that is and I liked the way this showed Jesus doing more "legwork" (is that a phrase you have?) - i.e doing a longer term mission, rather than a flash in the pan ministry. I'm still not entirely sure why its largelly held that Jesus' ministry only went on for 3 years, but still...

and what I found odd was the way Samuel (or the narrator?) quotes that line from Judges about how "there was no king and every man did what was right in his own eyes" as though that were a GOOD thing.
Yeh again I failed to pick up on this, although 1 Sam does, rather surprisingly depict the coming of the monarchy as a negative thing - even despite the way it lauds David.
Hmmm. Baugh says the film also depicts the multiplication of the loaves -- I remember seeing Jesus hand some bread out, but I don't remember seeing it multiply.
I remembered that to - it was quite striking, partly cos the only miracles shown previously had only been the words of knowledge kind. A theory for you. Perhaps as you say the film is much more interested in Jesus's knowledge so it includes the miracles that could be seen as supernatural knowledge (words of knowledge for the Charisnmatics amongst us). So we have the knowledge of Nathaneal (not Philip - in the bible if not the film), the knowledge of the woman at the well, and the knowledge of when & where to put the nets out to catch the fish. But he includes the feeding of the 5000 either because Rosellini believes Jesus did do other miracles, or because he wanted to avoid the controversy of not including them. The same with the passing references to Lazarus, or the blind man, acknowledging for whatever reason that Jesus did do miracles, but passing quickly by as they are not the point o his film. (I think both miracles are treated similarly in Son of Man - certainly Lazarus is done this way in other films - Day of Triumph?)

I really need to see this again, as I really liked it, and now there's someone to talk to it about, its a bit more motivating.

Matt

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MattPage wrote:

: Thanks for the long post as well. I felt I got more from your review here

: than I did from Baugh's - so thanks.

Gosh.

: Overall though I like the fact tht the disciples pass on some of the things

: written in the gospels as being from Jesus & that we see him teaching

: them stuff. I suppose what we actually have in the gospel accounts is the

: "apostles" telling us those stories rather than Jesus directly.

Yes, I liked this too -- we sometimes forget the process of sending people out and spreading the word began DURING the ministry of Jesus and was not just something that happened after his death and resurrection. (Although, given that the gospels focus so much on Galilee, and given that Galilee is pretty much ignored after the Last Supper and the Resurrection and all that, I do wonder sometimes what the followers of Jesus left behind in Galilee made of all these new developments.)

: I think this all tied into a more believable way of Jesus, his disciples, and

: other people interacting with him. I thinkthe impression is generally put

: across that Jesus did a couple of miracles and then eveyone followed

: him. I'm not sure how realistic that is and I liked the way this showed

: Jesus doing more "legwork" (is that a phrase you have?) . . .

Yup! In Canada, at any rate. smile.gif

: I'm still not entirely sure why its largelly held that Jesus' ministry only

: went on for 3 years, but still...

I believe it's because of the number of festivals reported in John's chronology. If all we had was the synoptics, we might think his ministry lasted only ONE year. Perhaps he did his thing for MORE than three years, who knows.

: . . . 1 Sam does, rather surprisingly depict the coming of the monarchy

: as a negative thing - even despite the way it lauds David.

Yeah, there's a very interesting tension there. I also thought it was interesting how, to go by the English subtitles at any rate, the Israelites include cities and a Temple in their list of demands -- it's not just the king they want, but full-fledged centralization and urbanization! And just as the film shows King Saul killing an animal when he makes his first call to war, so too it shows the priests in the Temple in Jesus' day carving up one of the sacrificial lambs -- a suggestion, perhaps, that Jesus was killed not so much for the sins of the world, but because the world had turned its back on the brotherhood of men and demanded these hierarchies, with perhaps the corollary idea that hierarchies are inherently violent?

: But he includes the feeding of the 5000 either because Rosellini believes

: Jesus did do other miracles, or because he wanted to avoid the

: controversy of not including them.

Or perhaps he just liked the symbolism of everyone eating together, as part of that brotherhood-of-man thing. smile.gif

: The same with the passing references to Lazarus, or the blind man,

: acknowledging for whatever reason that Jesus did do miracles, but

: passing quickly by as they are not the point o his film.

Could be. It's funny, I found it frustrating that I was not allowed to SEE these miracles happen, and yet, at the same time, I had to recognize that 99.9% of the people who knew about these miracles probably saw and heard no more than what I saw and heard in this film -- rumours and reports and, in the case of the blind man and his parents, some puzzling testimonies.

: (I think both miracles are treated similarly in Son of Man - certainly

: Lazarus is done this way in other films - Day of Triumph?)

Can't remember how they were done in either of those films -- it's been a while.

: I really need to see this again, as I really liked it, and now there's

: someone to talk to it about, its a bit more motivating.

Glad to be of service! smile.gif

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Incidentally, I came across this interesting blurb on Rossellini's film on pages 89-90 of Baugh's book, which may or may not shed light on the main reason that I happen to have misgivings about Mel Gibson's film:

Rossellini clearly rejects the dramatic effect, for which the Gospel narrative provides plenty of opportunities. At the beginning of the film, for example, he represents the slaughter of the innocents in a discrete, almost undramatic way, a choice consciously made, says Rossellini, to counter a contemporary habit: "Of course, showing the slaughter of the innocents today can be a major dramatic scene, in the sadomasochistic style of film-making so in vogue today." . . . For Rossellini, rejecting artificially dramatic effects, though they are clearly pleasing to the audience which wants thrills and chills even from the life of Jesus Christ, is the "rejection of seduction." In the film-essay, there is no need for seduction: the truth speaks for itself.

So in that respect, Gibson's film, it seems, could be one that caters to the spirit of the age ("contemporary habit" ... "the sadomasochistic style of film-making so in vogue today") more than one that points us to some sort of higher truth. Everyone thinks Gibson is being oh-so-brave by making an ultra-violent Jesus movie, when in fact, in the five years since Saving Private Ryan kicked off the latest wave of ultra-violent war movies, and in the three years since Gladiator brought back the Roman epic with a gory vengeance, ultra-violence is pretty much what we EXPECT.

Then again, OTOH, Rossellini's film goes too far in the other direction, I think -- the violence against Jesus is so under-played there, it doesn't seem to have much if anything to do with his life or ministry. No doubt some sort of balance is required.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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: I'm still not entirely sure why its largelly held that Jesus' ministry only

: went on for 3 years, but still...

I believe it's because of the number of festivals reported in John's chronology. If all we had was the synoptics, we might think his ministry lasted only ONE year. Perhaps he did his thing for MORE than three years, who knows.

Yeah I thought that was still the main reason, but given as you say that if we just had the synoptics we'd have thought he only did it in a year then I'm not sure how safe an assumption this is. Maybe there were only 3 passovers. John's gospel is very stylised and so a bit unreliable for this kind of thing.

Partly I'm trying to reconcile to my own mind a few things.

1 - The uncertainty as to Jesus's actual birth date given the seeming contradiction at the start of Luke

2 - The seemingly fixed nature of 27AD as a year for his death

3 - The statement at the start of Luke that Jesus was 30 when he started his ministry with

4 - The fact that he is described in John as not yet 50.

Now the last one is particularly ope to a wide amount of reasoning and speculation, but here's ahypothesis that I'm wondering about.

Maybe Jesus was born much earlier, sarted his ministry aged 30, but it went on for a lot longer, maybe ten years, gradually building support, and doing so many things that "all the world could not hold of the books of it", and then dying at an older age. This may also account for some of the synoptic/johannie discrepancies.

OK, its a crap theory full of holes, but at the same time so is the accpeted theory so....?

Anyway...

And just as the film shows King Saul killing an animal when he makes his first call to war, so too it shows the priests in the Temple in Jesus' day carving up one of the sacrificial lambs -- a suggestion, perhaps, that Jesus was killed not so much for the sins of the world, but because the world had turned its back on the brotherhood of men and demanded these hierarchies, with perhaps the corollary idea that hierarchies are inherently violent?
I like this take, partly I guess because I've read a bit of anthropology and all that mythologised violence stuff seems bang on with much of that. I'm not sure about your term the brotherhood of man - sounds a bit "King of Kings" to me. Is it yours or Baugh's?

: Or perhaps he just liked the symbolism of everyone eating together, as part of that brotherhood-of-man thing. smile.gif

oop, there you go again wink.gif Good theory though

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MattPage wrote:

: I'm not sure about your term the brotherhood of man - sounds a bit

: "King of Kings" to me. Is it yours or Baugh's?

Can't remember, actually. For all I know, I might have taken it from the back of the video box (which I have already returned to the video store).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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MattPage wrote:

: I'll check the box (that line in KofK does make me cringe tho' which is

: why it's stuck out)

I don't remember the specific King of Kings line (despite seeing it so recently -- oh wait, was it in that news report given by the centurion?), but it was a common theme in the Jesus films of that era (like when, in Ben Hur, the Roman general sums up the message of Jesus as "God is in every man" -- you have to wonder if the Christians who cherish these films have really noticed what's going on in them sometimes).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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: was it in that news report given by the centurion

Yeh, Basically after the sermon on the mount scene, Lucius reports back to Pilate / Herod and says that Jesus "preached peace, love and the brotherhood of man". It makes me think of the band by the same name as much as anything! I must admit King of Kings is my guilty pleasure amongst Jesus films, but I think that's my least favourite line in the whole thing.

Matt

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  • 11 years later...

This YouTube version of the film has English subtitles; you can summon them by clicking on the "closed captioned" button:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnBTw34lasU

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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