Wednesday, May 26, 2010

SON OF MAN (2006)

Mark Dornford-May's movie, only his second feature, is a retelling of the Jesus story in 21st century Africa. Stylistically it's most likely inspiration is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which, while ostensibly set in the correct historical period, embraced anachronistic elements (like American gospel songs on the soundtrack) while paring away the opulent details that characterized Hollywood gospel films. Son of Man is a very musical film, its range extending from spiritual ecstasy to choral defiance. The music carries much of the burden of the film's spirituality. The story, as told here, is arguably more mundane.

The opening promises something less mundane. We start with the temptations in the desert, Satan goading a Jesus in robes and whiteface to make stones from bread, jump off a cliff, etc. Jesus (Andile Kosi) has enough, finally, and shoves the Evil One off a sand dune. "Get thee behind me Satan," he says -- familiar enough. What follows isn't: "This is my world!" Satan disagrees, of course.

It looks like we've been dropped in the middle of a familiar story in well-established modern cinema fashion, but this opening proves more of a prologue, a preliminary to Jesus's decision to be born in the African kingdom of Judea, a nation torn by strife pitting King Herode against a shadowy foreign-backed Democratic Coalition. In a village a woman flees from machete-wielding dancing killers. She plays dead in a schoolroom full of massacred children, and the soldiers (and Satan) miss her. Just when she thinks she's safe an angel, a child adorned with white feathers, performs the annunciation. She and her husband (his role as minimal as ever) become refugees, and she gives birth in a shed as a host of child-angels summon shepherds to the scene. A few years later the family barely escapes a massacre of children at a checkpoint. The child angel appears again, offering little Jesus his protection. The boy rejects it, reaffirming: "This is my world!"

From this point, Dornford-May and his writing team try to have things both ways. Jesus retains his own divine powers, enabling him to heal, exorcise and revive. But while he's clearly a supernatural being, his kingdom is very much of this (or "my") world. In fact, he hardly talks of a "kingdom" at all, of God or otherwise. His is a political mission. He denounces Herode and his foreign-manipulated successors in turn; he denounces the imperialist mentality that dismisses Africans as mere tribal savages; he denounces the U.S. for blocking the production of cheap medicine through the use of commercial patents. "We have been lied to," he repeats, "Evil did not fall." His answer is solidarity, justice and nonviolence. Some of his own disciples have been guerrilla fighters (some of the others are women); he makes them give up their guns. As videos of his sermons circulate and stories of miracles boost his credibility, the Democratic Coalition sees him as a political rival. They want their inside man, Judas, to get the evidence they need to justify taking Jesus down. The Passion, or at least the opening act, will be televised -- or at least it could be later....

As a non-believer, it may not be my business to say whether Son of Man gets Jesus "right" or not, but two things about it struck me as peculiar. First, the concept of Jesus as a primarily political actor is bound to be controversial. The idea of a Jesus who really says nothing about God or God's supposed love for man, will be a deal-breaker for many Christians. For my part, I do wonder whether it misrepresents the historical Jesus, but some people say the Gospels misrepresent him, also. Second, Christianity is going to have a very different history in the video age. The African Jesus is sometimes surrounded by camcorders, and some of his sayings, at least, can be recorded indisputably. But because the filmmakers are bound by the traditional Jesus narrative, they don't really explore the implications of an Incarnation in the Information Age.

Son of Man is ultimately a cultural rather than a religious document, though it could be described as liberation theology. Its effort to make Jesus relevant to contemporary Africa tells us as much about the filmmakers' vision of Africa as it does about their idea of Christianity. As a Jesus movie, some viewers will find it more palatable than the more gruesomely faithful Passion of the Christ. People who admire the Pasolini Gospel may find Son of Man a natural next step, though they might be surprised to see the end borrow the long shadow symbolizing resurrection from the Nicholas Ray King of Kings. For people who are students or fans of the Jesus genre, as I am to an extent, Son of Man is obviously worth seeing, but I'd also recommend it as a film of interest, if not necessarily a great film, to anyone interested in politically-committed African cinema.

This trailer, uploaded to YouTube by AiMfilmfest, gives a good idea of the mix of modernity and archetypes throughout the picture:


Anders Branderud said...

Historical J....."!?!

The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

Samuel Wilson said...

I can't speak for Christians, but you seem to exclude the possibility that Yehoshua was in any way exceptional, and I suspect that we wouldn't be talking about him 2,000 years after the fact, whether we worship him or not, if he wasn't. That reservation aside, I thank you for your fascinating tengental comment.

Anonymous said...

No. The true question is:
In light of the fact that none of these religions can be proven true, that god is, in fact, nothing more than a myth or a lie, will you still allow yourselves to be ruled by ignorance, fear and superstition?

Anders Branderud said...


I recommend you to read an article in my blog ( It contains a formal logical proof, based on scientific premises, that proves the existence of an Intelligent and Perfect Creator of this universe (i.e. the Prime Cause of this universe (the cause of Big Bang)); and it also proves that His instructions are found in Torah, and that His purpose of humankind is for us to practise those Instructions in Torah.

And it is also possible to deduce with logic that the only way to get to the Creator when one dies, is if one does his/her utmost to keep the Creator’s instructions in Torah.

Anonymous said...

The basic premise of your logic is flawed. There is no god, therefore there can be no logical proof of the existence of god.