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The Forgotten: The Place of the Skull

The true story of Patrice Lulumba, Congolese leader, is combined with the story of Christ in Valerio Zurlini's political/religious allegory.

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. ■

One of my lifelong goals is to recreate the cancelled 68 Cannes film festival and hand out the palme d’or to one of the many amazing neglected masterpieces that were to screen (Black Jesus is one of the many I’ve not been able to see). Do you know anyone who’d be interested in making this happen? There’s nothing I’d love more than to give recognition to Long Day’s Dying and The Red & The White and have them duke it out for best film/director.
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That’s actually a great idea. You should curate an exhibit based on that.
I’d absolutely love to because I think it’d be a great film community event. I think I’d need a benefactor to get my hands on the prints, but it’s been on to-do list for a few years.
It’s an amazing idea. You might need the resources of a film festival to do it, but it would be a fascinating venture. Maybe approaching somebody at Cannes would yield some interest, they could cooperate in the production…
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Yes, they would be a logical partner for this. But you really have to have access in order to strike a deal with them and push it through. I imagine there’s too much corporate red tape. Too much industry influence. Maybe its better to do it on a smaller level, at an independent cultural center. Then you can really be creative and subversive, in the spirit of ’68.
Well, if you really did it in the spirit of ‘68, you wouldn’t show the films. Again. I don’t think you’d have a problem getting somebody to speak to you at Cannes, but if you weren’t proposing they stage the event themselves, they might not be able to do anything unless you had a venue organized. This would suit a small, starting film festival, or could be a side-bar at a bigger one. Obviously, 2018, the fiftieth anniversary, would make sense, but why wait? Cannes might think of doing the same thing for themselves. I really love the idea of “the 2013 Podunk Film Festival presents the 1968 Cannes Film Festival.”
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Indeed, maybe the films are not necessary. It could be “paper movies”, or “cinema by other means”. I forgot about the 50th anniversary coming up. That may be just enough time to throw a successful pitch to Cannes.
Well that would be lovely of course but what worries me is my lack of clout, industry or otherwise. How do you suppose I go about doing this? Who do I talk to specifically? It’s a very general question, I realize, but if you fellows knew where I could start (or perhaps knew a festival other than Cannes willing to go the distance on something crazy like this) I’d be hugely grateful! And should I worry about Godard concealing a sharpened spoon in a newspaper and trying to attack me when I least expect it?
David, have you ever worked closely with a fest that could benefit from the press something like this might (hopefully) bring, but who might conceivably handle print acquisition?
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As I mentioned, if you don’t have access or clout, there’s probably zero chance. Maybe the best thing to do is make a website project out of it.
You could get video copies and stage it at your house, see how it goes, and then expand it. It can be better to develop something on a small scale so that it becomes real, and then expand it.
this movie looks great!

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