Valerio Zurlini, writer-director, is someone I find a little hard to pin down: a career which contains both Girl with a Suitcase (1961), in which prostitute/aspiring actress Claudia Cardinale becomes houseguest of a teenage boy (but it's NOT like Risky Business) and Desert of the Tartars (1976), an existential historical epic based on a novel which David Lean had planned to film at one point. What initially seems to unite the work is a rare seriousness: Zurlini is earnest, almost humorless, and at times despairing.
The strikingly titled Black Jesus (1968 - the Italian title translates, more subtly, as Sitting on His Right) is a good example of Zurlini's willingness to follow a story into the darkest places. It's based blatantly on the true story of Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected Congolese leader, who was deposed, tortured and assassinated under the watchful eye of the UN, and with the probable connivance of the US and Belgium. This story is one of the most depressing and horrible you can find, so in a way Zurlini's role is to render it just palatable enough to be watched, without falsifying it with sentiment.
His solution, to create an allegory of the life of Christ, is a bold one, and he's got the right actor to give it a chance of working: Woody Strode, with his gaunt, haunted face, and those infinitely sad eyes. Allegorical treatments of the New Testament often seem to work better than direct adaptations, incidentally. Perhaps transposing the story to other times and places adds in some of the strangeness that mysticism needs, and which Sunday School and Cecil B. DeMille tend to expunge.
As his Pontius Pilate, Zurlini has old Jean Servais, his raddled face a mirror for his character's conscience, and as Oreste, one of the two thieves with whom the film's Christ-figure is to be slain, there's a very engaging performance from Franco Citti, familiar from numerous Pasolini movies. Oreste is a former cook, thief, rough trade, a pitiful figure who seems to have only bad qualities, but who is redeemed by being recognized as a human being by Strode's Messiah.
(The other thief is Stephen Forsyth, chiseled lead of Mario Bava's Hatchet for the Honeymoon.)
Zurlini directs this surprising political/religious parable somewhat in the style of Sergio Leone: Techniscope framing (sadly cropped in my copy), huge foreground objects, slow but powerful camera moves, atmospheric use of whistling wind, whirring fans, clouds of dust and smoke. Of course, it's hard not to think of Strode's cameo in Once Upon a Time in the West, released the same year. The violent beatings which make up much of the action are Leonesque too, but less sadistic in intent. The film does have a kind of homoerotic sheen, but Zurlini keeps that away from the torture.
Initially, Strode's character ("Maurice Luluba") is unseen, echoing many filmic Christs before him - British censorship laws in the '20s specifically forbade representation of Jesus in the movies, while DeMille gave him a delayed entrance in The King of Kings (finally revealed via the POV of a blind man regaining his sight) and Ben Hur keeps him in long shot or with his back to the camera, creating a sense of his power by the reactions of other characters. When Strode eventually is revealed, he may be the only actor I've seen in the role whose face, and gaze, really seem to suggest the divine.
Zurlini's ending strikes me as beautifully judged: he's still balancing his two stories, the Christ one which is full of hope by its very nature, and the twentieth century one which admits a lot less optimism, as the bloody history of the Congo since Lumumba testifies. His solution hints that the struggle will go on and that the crimes depicted will not be forgotten, which is really as upbeat a conclusion as it is possible to sustain.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. ■