Black Jesus

Year: 1968. Directed by Valerio Zurlini. Starring Woody Strode, Jean Servais, Salvatore Basile, Pier Paolo Capponi, Franco Citti, and Stephen Forsyth. Country: Italy
DVD release: Eclectic DVD

Review by Joe Pettit, Jr.

Valerio Zurlini was known for crafting existentialist dramas, such as Violent Summer and Girl With A Suitcase, that were almost always autobiographical examinations of human relationships within the context of traumatic historical moments. Known as "the poet of melancholy," Zurlini, a postwar Italian director whose films are better known throughout Europe than the United States, tended to make films that were more influenced by literature and painting than politics. Black Jesus ("Seduto alla sua Destra," which translates as "Seated at his right"), recently released on DVD by Eclectic DVD, was an exception to the rule. Based on the life of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the first democratically elected political figure in the Congo, Black Jesus is a moving, albeit flawed fable that draws not-so-subtle parallels between the lives of Lumumba and Jesus.

Woody Strode plays Maurice Lalubi, a powerful and charismatic rebel opposed to the foreign rule of his country, who is betrayed by an enigmatic figure working within his ranks. Thrown in a prison cell with a compassionate thief named Oreste (Franco Citti), Lalubi is given one hour to decide his fate. A Dutch colonel (Jean Servais) agrees to set Lalubi free if he will sign a paper ordering the rebel forces to throw down their weapons. If he does not sign, his fate will be slow torture and death by execution. Despite his impending doom, Lalubi focuses his attention on Oreste, seeming genuinely interested in the life of this sad little man. After an hour passes, Lalubi is taken to a dark, dirty room to be worked over by a team of soldiers. The next day, the Dutch colonel has second thoughts about his part in all of this and tries to negotiate Lalubiís release with the African puppet government. However, the puppet government wants Lalubi dead, believing that the people will forget all about him and go back to being docile servants. Events proceed to their starkly tragic, yet expected, conclusion.

There is no denying that Black Jesus has moments of real power. Strode gives a powerhouse performance as Lalubi, a calm, almost holy rebel who holds on to his ideals and his dignity while facing the hopelessness of his own future. When Lalubi is led into a room full of soldiers for his first "interrogation," the calmness dissolves. His body rebels despite his convictions that he is pursuing the only course he can. The soldiers overpower him, forcing him to the table to meet his martyrdom. Through it all, he never curses his tormentors or loses his compassion for his common countryman. The scene is stark, brutal and heartbreaking -- a sobering reminder that many good men and women standing up to tyranny have met similar fates in dark, secluded rooms throughout the history of imperialism. Citti, as well, gives a great performance as Oreste. The thief is truly touched that such a powerful figure as Lalubi would take the time to talk to him, much less ask his name and for details of his life. In a touching scene, he repays the favor by dressing Lalubiís wounds after he is tortured. Servais, as the Dutch colonel, convincingly portrays a man having doubts about the methods used to impose rule. He lies awake, his face convulsed with agony as he listens to Lalubiís screams. One of the messages of the film is that torture degrades both conqueror and conquered, that while damaging the victimís body it also damages the inflictorís psyche.

In spite of the filmís success in depicting the tragedy of colonial rule, Black Jesus fails on a more basic level. Zurlini and co-writer Franco Brusati skimp on crucial background information that could have raised the film to classic status. Intended as a fable, the film utilizes broad strokes to develop character and move the plot along. Only two characters are referred to by name: Maurice Lalubi and Oreste, the thief. Presumably, this technique serves to elevate the characters to the level of archetypal roles, but more often it reduces them to caricature. Furthermore, Zurlini assumes that familiarity with the story of the death of Jesus will supply much of the emotional and informational background for the viewer. However, we are left wondering about very basic elements of the plot. For instance, we never learn any details about the relationship between the Judas character and Lalubi. It is obvious in their final confrontation that Lalubi knows him, but in what capacity? Judging from the biblical story of Jesus we could assume that the Judas character worked side by side with Lalubi, but the evidence to support this assumption is not present in the film. Since Black Jesus presumes to be based on the life of a historical African leader, a little more historical information and a little less mythologizing would have gone a long way. One is left wishing that the end result played less like hagiography and more like a well-developed political thriller.

The DVD presentation by Eclectic is shoddy at best. The cover artwork is unattractive and the liner notes uninformative. No mention is made that the transfer is widescreen, which would be a major selling point for the DVD. The video transfer comes from a damaged print. Image and audio skips abound. Because no notes are given regarding the source of the print, one can only speculate. The "special features" confirm that not a lot of thought or care went into the preparation of the DVD. Aside from the excellent biography of Woody Strode and the extremely informative notes on the political history of the Congo during Patrice Lumumbaís career, no other information on the cast or crew is provided. The accompanying shorts -- which include a performance by the Count Basie Orchestra, a Little Rascals comedy, and an episode of the Buck Rogers serial -- astonishingly have no relevance whatsoever to Valerio Zurlini, Woody Strode, or African history. By a huge stretch of the imagination, one could justify the inclusion of the Count Basie Orchestraís performance of "Basie Boogie," but including an episode of the Little Rascals that deals with a cannibalistic wild man from Borneo comes off as insensitive and just plain offensive. Including episode 2 of a Buck Rogers serial is simply ridiculous and surreal.

Despite the flaws of the film and the lackluster DVD presentation, Black Jesus remains a compelling and moving story of a man who dies daring to challenge European rule in his country, thereby becoming a celebrated martyr. It is worth watching for the performances of Woody Strode, Franco Citti, and Jean Servais alone.

Black Jesus is available on DVD from Eclectic DVD. Special features: widescreen presentation (approximately 1.66:1); Woody Strode biography; notes on the political history of the Congo during Patrice Lumumba's reign; plus additional material unrelated to the movie. Suggested retail price: $19.95.