Monday, February 6, 2012

BLACK JESUS (Seduto alla sua destra, 1968)

The Italian title of Valerio Zurlini's African allegory means "Seated on his right," but the U.S. blaxploitation title, coined for a 1971 American release, gets to the point clearly enough. We're in central Africa, presumably the Congo or a thinly disguised equivalent. White troops fight for a black ruler against dissident followers of one Laloube, the price on whose head grows from four to six figures in a course of months. At first we don't see this mystery man. Like the Jesus in many an early biblical epic, his presence is established only by his smooth voice -- in the English dub rather like a solemn radio pitchman -- and the awed gaze of his acolytes. The authorities can't lay hands on Laloube until an African Judas rats him out for a reward, and for personal reasons he keeps to himself. The white troops shoot their way through a village to reach the rebel, leaving carnage in their wake, but Laloube himself puts up no resistance -- and it's only when the soldiers find him that we see, for we couldn't tell it from hearing, that the man is played by Woody Strode.

Despite his college education, Strode is not the actor you think of casting as a nonviolent politician, yet Laloube, more than his presumed prototype Patrice Lumumba, abhors violence. Yet throughout his acting career Strode projected a stalwart stoicism that seems right for this role. He had played a kind of martyr before in Spartacus, as the gladiator who casts his spear in vain at Crassus rather than kill the title character. For Zurlini Strode's resistance will be entirely passive, his martyrdom a transparent Passion.

Laloube is questioned by the white commander (Jean Servais), to whom the prisoner reveals strange intuitive powers. Laloube simply knows that the commander is Dutch rather than Belgian or French, and knows the exact number of children he has. It's curious, and perhaps a little troubling, but neither here nor there. The immediate business at hand is to get Laloube to sign a statement repudiating the rebellion, but this he will not do. The commander defends the continued European role in Africa, predicting a lapse into barbarism should his kind pull out of the continent. If that happens, Laloube replies, it proves either that you taught us nothing or that what you taught was worth nothing.

Meanwhile, a European, Oreste (Franco Citti), is being interrogated for his alleged role in the theft of a truck. Suspected of ties to Laloube, Oreste is beaten brutally, but is left in an unlocked cell as everyone rushes to see Laloube brought in. By the time Oreste gathers the courage to sneak out, he's caught again and driven back to his cell. Laloube hears Oreste's screams during his chat with the commander and pleads for the stranger not to be beaten. Shown Oreste, he attempts to exculpate him, claiming never to have saw him. It does neither man any good. Soon they're sharing a cell; Laloube has an hour to sign the document or else face the torturers. In that time he befriends Oreste and convinces his fellow captive of a better world they could both live in.

Laloube is tortured; we don't see too many details in the American cut, which seems to be ten minutes short of the original version, but the ordeal seems to involve nails being driven into his fingers or fingernails. His screams are worse than Oreste's, and when Laloube is returned to his cell Oreste barters desperately with a guard for ointment to treat his friend's hands. A third prisoner joins the pair and watches indifferently as Oreste struggles to comfort Laloube. Oreste begs this newcomer to give up his shirt so he can bind the wounds on Laloube's hands. Instead, the third man beats the crap out of Oreste, knocking over the oil tin. The battered Oreste gathers as much of the oil in his hands as he can and lets it drip back into the tin.

The commander meets with the ruler, who insists that Laloube be killed despite the usual pragmatic warning against making martyrs out of people. If the commander can't bring himself to do the deed, someone else can be found for the job. There's nothing to be done, and the three prisoners are conveyed in a jeep to a remote village, where the man who betrayed Laloube waits with a dagger in a hut. Oreste races to the hut to witness the scene, sealing his own fate. The third prisoner simply lounges in the jeep, but that won't save him. He may not have seen anything, as he insists, but he heard the shots and has to go. That leaves a small boy, garbed in white. The soldiers open fire on him with a machine gun, but the child -- I fear the adjective is necessary -- miraculously escapes. Why the soldiers don't simply chase him down, if they're so concerned about witnesses, I can't say. Maybe that was a miracle too.

Take a look at that poster above and imagine how disappointed American audiences must have been when Black Jesus played ghetto grindhouses. With the tag, "He who ain't with me is against me," audiences may well have expected an American film in an American setting. What they got was a rather dubious vindication of non-violence -- but should we share in their presumed disappointment? I'm afraid I do. I've admired the other Zurlini films I've seen -- the WW2 coming-of-age drama Violent Summer and the existential military drama The Desert of the Tartars. But while Seduto alla sua destra is handsomely shot (evident even on YouTube) and Strode is effectively sensitive in what's effectively a pantomime performance for the twice-dubbed actor, Zurlini is left with a high concept and little more. Restaging the Passion in Africa, with new emphasis on Jesus's interplay with the two thieves, does little to enhance our appreciation of political conditions in Africa or the relevance of Christianity to the continent's conflicts. It may work for some viewers as a plea for plain compassion for suffering humanity, but did we really still need Jesus in 1968 to teach us that? If anything, the story's allegorical nature undercuts its relevance by making everything seem more mythological than immediate. It's even arguable that reducing war-torn Africa to a backdrop for a Passion Play is as patronizingly exploitative of the continent's agony, at least, as Jacopetti and Prosperi's infamous yet infinitely more eloquent shockumentary Africa Addio. I don't doubt that Zurlini's heart was in the right place, but I fear his head was elsewhere.

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