If the biblical story of the life of Jesus Christ seems timeless to you, here’s more evidence that you’re right. It’s “Son of Man,” a film in the South African Xhosa language in which the New Testament story of Jesus is adapted to modern-day Africa. It translates surprisingly well.
Director Mark Dornford-May (whose last film was an African adaptation of “Carmen”) finds a lot of parallels between the Gospels and 21st-century Africa. The setting is a fictional sub-Saharan nation called Judea where warlords, dictators and famine are the rule. Herod (Sibusiso Ziqubu), the ruler, oversees a near-fascist militia and is paranoid about insurgents and rebels, so the common people are ready to listen when Jesus (Andile Kosi) preaches a gospel of peace and pacifism. Just as in the Bible, the African Jesus finds no shortage of people who are poor and hungry and eager to hear a message of hope.
The story is basically the same as you remember from Sunday School, with no room at the inn and water to wine and a death and resurrection. Africa is depicted as being caught between traditionalism and modernism; news of Jesus’ miracles spreads through video footage as well as via colorful murals that the villagers paint on the walls. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, the townspeople who would execute her object not to her immorality, as they do in the Gospels, but to the fact that in the modern world, promiscuity spreads disease.
Jesus’ apostles are former insurgents and warriors whom he has asked to lay down their weapons. A couple of them are women, which is a logical change from the original material. It’s interesting that Dornford-May (who co-wrote the screenplay with his “Carmen” cohorts Andiswa Kedama and Pauline Malefane) doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ divinity so much as his leadership, good sense and compassion.
There is no question of Jesus’ godhood in the film, though. Traditional African tribal music, dance and costumes are employed in the worship of him, and it’s a poignant contrast to the death and mayhem that rule the people’s daily lives.
The film is worth watching just to see how the story is adapted, and for the native elements just mentioned that give it a National Geographic flair. However, just as in the Bible, there is no characterization to speak of. The figures perform their roles in the pageant, but we never get beneath the surface of their characters. The exercise wears thin before we’re finished, and you hate to walk out early on a movie about Jesus.
B- (1 hr., 26 min.; in Xhosa with subtitles; )