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The Bootleg Files: Kristo

BOOTLEG FILES 750: “Kristo” (1996 Filipino film on the life of Jesus Christ).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Too obscure for commercial consideration.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not on a U.S. label.

Before we get started on this week’s column, I would like to call attention to this being the 750th entry in The Bootleg Files series that began 17 years ago on another site and has been part of Cinema Crazed since February 2017. I would like to thank the Cinema Crazed publisher, Felix Vasquez Jr., for hosting this column and thank the readers that have been extraordinarily supportive over the years. And now, on with the show…

Nearly all films that include Jesus Christ as a character take place in ancient Judea, although there have been exceptions. The Thomas Ince-produced “Civilization” (1916) brought Jesus into the then-contemporary world to enhance the film’s obsessively pacifist personality – and many critics of that time considered this to be in poor taste. Dalton Trumbo took the same tactic with his 1971 “Johnny Got His Gun,” with Donald Sutherland as an insouciant Jesus in the World War I era, while underground films including “The Sin of Jesus” (1961) and last week’s column entry, “The Divine Mr. J” (1974), along with the film version of the musical “Godspell” (1973) had warped contemporary settings for a goofy version of Jesus to preach and joke about.

The 1996 film “Kristo” took a different approach by transporting the story of Jesus into the Philippines. Indeed, the film opens with the prologue: “If the story of the New Testament replaced the setting from the Middle East to the Philippine Islands, what would the image and culture of the New Testament look like?” The result, as depicted in “Kristo,” is a bizarre mix of ancient Judea and the Classical Filipino culture prior to the Spanish invasion and colonization in the 16th century. In this production, centurions in Roman uniforms and Sanhedrin chieftains in a vague approximation of Jewish prayer robes share the screen with people dressed in historic Filipino clothing. Sometimes, the Pacific Rim culture trumps the story’s Middle Eastern roots, particularly in the sensual Filipino music and hip-swinging dances for the Wedding at Cana and Salome’s wild dance for Herod Antipas.

“Kristo” has its roots in the traditional Filipino Passion Play that gets staged during Holy Week, and director Ben Yalung doesn’t allow the material to fully make the transition from live theater to the big screen. This is obvious in a lot of the make-up, with patently phony beards and wigs that might be acceptable to audiences sitting hundreds of feet from a stage but which only inspire giggles when magnified one-hundred-fold on the screen. The film’s low budget is also obvious in its few attempts at special effects, such as a badly animated dove descending from the sky during Jesus’ baptism and the shoddy earthquake effect when Jesus expires on the cross.

But at the same time, Yalung is able to use the cinematic medium to achieve some startling emotional impacts. This is particularly evident when Jesus is tempted by Satan, who is initially depicted as a demure woman wearing a pink robe – a significant departure from the usual cinematic Satan that gives the temptation an added sexual vibe rather than a purely intellectual challenge could be considered alarming for some traditionalists, particularly when Satan acknowledges the futility of this action and is abruptly revealed to be an anything-but-demure male.

Equally impressive is the exorcism of Legion and the raising of Lazarus – in both scenes, those impacted by the miracle react with a gut-wrenching emotionalism that goes beyond mere acting. Aga Muhlach as the possessed man freed of his demons and Suzette Ranillo and Maureen Mauricio as Mary and Martha invest a heartbreaking depth into their relatively brief roles, crying out powerfully in tearful joy as their suffering is erased through unprecedented acts. Rez Cortez’ Judas is equally jolting when expressing the remorse of his action, collapsing in near-hysteria when realizing what his betrayal has created. All of these actors achieve a state of anguish that is genuinely heartbreaking.

Yalung also presents a harsh Passion that goes beyond earlier Jesus-centric films, taking the torture of Jesus to a sadism that is eons removed from mere physical punishment – one has to wonder if Mel Gibson was aware of this film level of brutality when preparing his epic “The Passion of the Christ.”

Mat Ranillo III plays Jesus in a forceful personality – he is a charismatic actor who generated authority with his presence. He is a no-nonsense Jesus, presenting the Sermon on the Mount in a straightforward manner and presenting miracles with a harsh seriousness. In the Passion, Ranillo essays Jesus’ suffering with uncommon brilliance.

As with the majority of films made in the Philippines, “Kristo” is mostly unknown outside of its country. It does not appear that it was ever screened in the U.S., and the only way Americans can view it today is by a somewhat blurry and subtitle-free unauthorized posting on YouTube. While this is hardly the ideal way to appreciate “Kristo,” it represents an important link in how the cinema considered the Gospels, and its distinctive style makes it stand out from many less-than-stellar films made in the West.

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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