Reviewed by Jonathan More
In a third-year course entitled “Jesus and the Gospels” we investigate how the four Gospels combine to give us an account of Jesus’ life and his ministry. We also pay attention to how others have engaged in this task of studying and describing the life of Jesus. In the final week of the term we watched a cinematic retelling of Jesus’ life: Mark Dornford-May’s “Son of Man” (2006). Well over 100 different films have been made about part or all of Jesus’ life. “Son of Man,” however, is certainly one of the more thoughtful and engaging Jesus-films I have seen.
The story starts in the Eastern Cape and then moves to Khayelitsha, although neither of these locations are named. Instead, the movie is set in “the Kingdom of Judea, Afrika.” With this the movie signals its intent not to be a South African retelling of the Jesus story, but an African one.
The first scene, a flash-forward, portrays the devil’s temptation of Jesus, whose face is caked with white mud, identifying him as an umkhwetha undergoing traditional initiation (ulwaluko). The link between Jesus’ entry into manhood and the start of his mission is portrayed in a later scene. At the end of this scene, however, as Jesus tosses the evil figure down a dune, a demonic voice declares, “This is my world.” The rest of the film investigates this claim.
The main narrative begins in the middle of a battle between supporters of the local “big man,” Herode, and the forces of the “Democratic Coalition,” who are attempting to establish peace between Herode and other regional insurgents — a peace which they are quite willing to exploit. The scenes are those from any one of the multitude of civil/ethnic wars that have plagued Africa for the past fifty or sixty years. The devil’s influence, signalled by the sound of a locust or a character carrying a goat-foot staff, is evident throughout the film. At crucial points in the story — the slaughter of schoolchildren, the “necklacing” of a prostitute, the discussion between the demagogues and the tyrant in charge of the military — the presence of evil suggests that this is indeed the ruling force of the world.
Like so many lives of Jesus, the creators of this film give us Jesus as they would have liked him to be, rather than the Jesus we encounter in the Scriptures. So, women are included in the Twelve and the miraculous is removed. The healing of a little girl (a clever synthesis of a number of biblical miracles) and the raising of Lazarus seem as surprising to Jesus as they are to the crowd. Paintings on the sides of shacks retell these stories, providing fuel for the flame of the growing Jesus-legend.
At one point Jesus is talking to his disciples about bringing about change. He encourages them to forsake violence. One after another, the disciples pull handguns from their jeans and place them in a bag which will presumably be disposed of later. Jesus is portrayed as a Gandhi-like advocate of peace and non-violent resistance. Many would argue that this, too, is an accurate representation of the real Jesus. The difference, however, is that the Jesus of the film seems confident that his followers are able to live this way simply by following his example. There is no indication in the film that their own hearts are noxious and that the core of Jesus’ mission is to deal with this.
Despite the presence of angels (which not all the characters are able to see), there is very little sense of the divine, and little indication that Jesus understood himself to be God’s Messiah. Jesus is therefore not really the Son of Man of Daniel 7, but a Leader of Men.
The climax of the film confirms these assessments. Jesus is not publicly crucified by the authorities but is, instead, “disappeared” in scenes that evoke the murders of Steve Biko and Patrice Lumumba. His grave is pointed out to Mary, who exhumes his corpse (with the help of other women) and then displays his broken body on a cross. The inhabitants of the township are enraged by the injustice poured out upon Jesus, but are apparently still unwilling to stand up against the tyranny that oppresses them. It is only when Mary refuses to cower before gun-toting soldiers that the people follow her example as she follows that of her son.
What we are presented with is nineteenth-century liberal theology in cinematic form. Jesus’ messages is all about the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. He preaches love and non-violence. There is nothing supernatural and certainly nothing divine about him. He dies as a great example and his resurrection is effected as he lives on in the hearts of his earliest followers.
Despite its dated, although still popular, view of Jesus, this is an excellent film. The acting, direction, cinematography, soundtrack, and script are all superb. I find it puzzling that it is not more widely known, and I would recommend that you see it. Don’t expect a careful retelling of the Gospels; that’s not what the film is trying to do. It is, instead, an African interpretation of those ancient accounts for a twenty-first-century audience.
The film’s take on the world is not a little depressing, though. Despite Jesus’ claim after the slaughter of the innocents (a tragedy repeated ad nauseam across our continent) that this is his world, what follows seems rather to affirm the devil’s claim to this world. The history of the African continent suggests that if our only hope for real change is a charismatic figure of this sort, then we have no reason to anticipate a positive future. This world is tragically evil, and, as the film shows, truly great leaders tend to be side-lined, corrupted, or killed. A hope that does not include the divine is really no hope at all.