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The Bootleg Files: Jésus de Nazareth

BOOTLEG FILES 681: “Jésus de Nazareth” (1942 Mexican film).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Not to my knowledge.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A once-popular Mexican film that is virtually unknown outside of its home country.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not in an English-subtitled version in the U.S. market.

In 1926, Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles sought to enforce a federal separation of church and state. But Calles’ virulent anti-Catholic sentiments resulted an excessively violent crackdown on the faith, much to the anger of many people. A popular uprising that became known as the Cristero War paralyzed the country for several years, and even Calles’ departure from office in 1928 failed to heal the scars created by his policies.

By 1940, a devout Catholic named Manuel Ávila Camacho was elected president of Mexico. At his suggestion, Mexico’s film industry was encouraged to make films dealing with religious subjects. The presidential decree caught the Catholic hierarchy in Mexico off-guard – the church was never previously involved in film production and its leadership was surprised at the invitation to provide input on cinematic output.

In 1942, “Jésus de Nazareth” offered the first Mexican film to consider the life of Jesus. The film’s importance warranted no less a figure than Luis M. Martinez, the Archbishop of Mexico City, to appear in the pre-credit sequence to explain the value of the production.

By contemporary standards, “Jésus de Nazareth” is a difficult film to watch. This was clearly a work of great sincerity, but good intentions do not always translate into quality filmmaking. With the exception of a few striking moments, the film feels like a recording of a community theater production, complete with cheapjack production settings and a cast that is not up to the holy source material.

“Jésus de Nazareth” omits Jesus’ birth and childhood, introducing Him as an adult encountering John the Baptist. His initial presence on-screen is framed artistically via a reflection in the River Jordan, and Jesus’ baptism is shot in a tight close-up with light shining from behind His head. But the sequence is much too polite – John the Baptist is uncommonly mild-mannered, despite his white fur toga and long hair, while Jesus moves with a stiff formality that almost seems mechanical. It also doesn’t help that the baptism is staged on a patently phony set and that the men are wearing shabby wigs and none-too-convincing paste-on beards.

Almost immediately, Jesus has gathered his 12 disciples and delivers the Sermon on the Mount. He heals a crippled man and engages in a surprisingly lengthy encounter with the Woman at the Well. Jesus then encounters a blind man and another crippled man, but before He can heal them there is a chaotic noise happening off-screen – and who should show up but the Woman Accused of Adultery, followed by the crowd of would-be stone throwers. After Jesus makes that classic comment about those without sin, the crowd disperses and the once-naughty woman surveys a street full of stones with no one to throw them.

Mercifully, the film does not conflate the accused adulteress with Mary Magdalene, but the latter turns up as a woman of great wealth who luxuriates in material splendor while surrounded by attractive young ladies who wait on her. This appears to be a riff on Cecil B. DeMille’s vision of Mary of Magdalene as a wealthy courtesan in the 1927 “King of Kings” – except in the Mexican film, there is not an overt identification of that naughty profession. Mary Magdalene spies Jesus walking by her residence and goes outside to greet Him – and after a couple of minutes of conversation, she foregoes her bad-girl life to follow the Nazarene.

Of course, we can’t forget Lazarus, and Jesus arrives to bring him back from the dead. This sequence is unintentionally funny when Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the disciples follow Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha into the small cave that houses the tomb – the surplus number of people creates a claustrophobic setting, and the raising of the dead man is depicted by a bright light shining underneath the lid of Lazarus’ tomb. With that miracle, everyone in the cramped tomb drops to their knees in unison and genuflects to Jesus.

Needless to say, Jesus is not entirely welcome in Jerusalem, and He encounters a Sanhedrin with exaggerated make-up and costumes that would affirm the stereotypes of a white nationalist audience – Caiaphas even has a hat with goat-style horns. While the film spends a considerable amount of attention on the Passion, it curiously skips the Resurrection – instead, a glowing Jesus turns up alive almost immediately after dying on the cross while the soundtrack is flooded with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Jesus was played by José Cibrián, an Argentine actor. For much of the film, he walks with his right hand held on his chest, as if trying to calm an indigestion flare-up. Cibrián mostly avoids displays of emotion, creating a robotic Jesus with a curiously blank look. It is not until the Passion that he shows any signs of dramatic power, and at that point he compensates for his earlier indifference – Cibrián suffers mightily, and the physical agony of his Jesus is so startling that it is hard to understand the indifference that came before these sequences. Unfortunately, no one else in the film bothers to offer anything that could be mistaken for a performance, creating an exercise in ecumenical ennui.

“Jésus de Nazareth” was directed by José Díaz Morales, a Spanish writer-director who went into Mexican exile after the Spanish Civil War. For “Jésus de Nazareth,” he tries to camouflage the poverty of this low-budget effort by jamming extras together and raising the decibel level on the soundtrack, thus trying to give the impression of much large crowds. He continued directing into the 1970s and is best known outside of Mexico for helming several action romps featuring the popular masked wrestler Santo.

“Jésus de Nazareth” was a very popular film when it was released in Mexico, and its commercial success helped fuel a flurry of Mexican productions based on the New Testament, including “Queen of Queens: The Virgin Mary” (1945), “María Magdalena” (1945), “… And He Died for Us” (1951) and “The Martyr of Calvary” (1952). Mexican cinema seemed to lose interest in the Holy Story until the 1966 “El Proceso de Cristo,” and in the early 1970s director Alejandro Galindo created a trilogy featuring “Jesus the Child God,” “Jesus Our Lord” and “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

However, Mexico’s Jesus-centric films remain unknown outside of Spanish-language audiences.
“Jésus de Nazareth” was never released in the U.S. with English subtitles and it is difficult to ascertain whether it played in U.S. theaters in the 1940s that catered to Spanish-speaking audiences – if it did, it escaped notice of the English-language media of that era. There has never been a home entertainment release on a U.S. label, although an unauthorized posting copied from a Spanish-language TV broadcast can be found on YouTube.

While “Jésus de Nazareth” is not a satisfactory artistic experience, it does have historic value. For that reason, it represents a step forward, albeit a small and wobbly step.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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