'Islamic Jesus' hits Iranian movie screens
Jan 13, 2008
Iranian actor, Ahmad Soleimani Nia plays the role of Jesus
Nader Talebzadeh sees his movie, "Jesus, the Spirit of God," as an Islamic answer to Western productions like Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," which he praised as admirable but quite simply "wrong".
"Gibson's film is a very good film. I mean that it is a well-crafted movie but the story is wrong -- it was not like that," he said, referring to two key differences: Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God, and does not believe he was crucified.
Talebzadeh said he even went to Gibson's mansion in Malibu, California, to show him his film. "But it was Sunday and the security at the gate received the film and the brochure and promised to deliver it," though the Iranian never heard back.
Even in Iran, "Jesus, The Spirit of God" had a low-key reception, playing to moderate audiences in five Tehran cinemas during the holy month of Ramadan, in October.
The film, funded by state broadcasting, faded off the billboards but is far from dead, about to be recycled in a major 20 episode spin-off to be broadcast over state-run national television this year.
Talebzadeh insists it aims to bridge differences between Christianity and Islam, despite the stark divergence from Christian doctrine about Christ's final hours on earth.
"It is fascinating for Christians to know that Islam gives such devotion to and has so much knowledge about Jesus," Talebzadeh told AFP.
"By making this film I wanted to make a bridge between Christianity and Islam, to open the door for dialogue since there is much common ground between Islam and Christianity," he said.
The director is also keen to emphasise the links between Jesus and one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam, the Imam Mahdi, said to have disappeared 12 centuries ago but whose "return" to earth has been a key tenet of the Ahmadinejad presidency.
Talebzadeh made his name making documentaries about Iran's 1980-1988 war against Iraq, an important genre in the country's post-revolutionary cinema.
But such weighty themes, and his latest film on Jesus, compete with domestic gangster thrillers and sugary boy-meets-girl love stories, the movies that continue to draw the biggest audiences in the Islamic Republic.
The bulk of "Jesus, the Spirit of God", which won an award at the 2007 Religion Today Film Festival in Italy, faithfully follows the traditional tale of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament Gospels, a narrative reproduced in the Koran and accepted by Muslims.
But in Talebzadeh's movie, God saves Jesus, depicted as a fair-complexioned man with long hair and a beard, from crucifixion and takes him straight to heaven.
"It is frankly said in the Koran that the person who was crucified was not Jesus" but Judas, one of the 12 Apostles and the one the Bible holds betrayed Jesus to the Romans, he said. In his film, it is Judas who is crucified.
Islam sees Jesus as one of five great prophets -- others being Noah, Moses and Abraham -- sent to earth to announce the coming of Mohammed, the final prophet who spread the religion of Islam. It respects Jesus' followers as "people of the book".
Iran has tens of thousands of its own Christians who are guaranteed religious freedoms under the constitution -- mainly Armenians, though their numbers have fallen sharply since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Every Christmas, Ahmadinejad and other officials lose no time in sending greetings to Christian leaders including the pope on what they describe as the "auspicious birthday of Jesus Christ, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH)."
In this year's message, Ahmadinejad said that "peace, friendship and justice will be attained wherever the guidelines of Jesus Christ (PBUH) are realised in the world."
Shiite Muslims, the majority in Iran, believe Jesus will accompany the Imam Mahdi when he reappears in a future apocalypse to save the world.
And Talebzadeh said the TV version of his film will further explore the links between Jesus and the Mahdi -- whose return Ahmadinejad has said his government, which came to power in 2005, is working to hasten.
Shiites believe the Mahdi's reappearance will usher in a new era of peace and harmony.
"We Muslims pray for the 'Return' (of Imam Mahdi) and Jesus is part of the return and the end of time," Talebzadeh said.
"Should we, as artists, stand idle until that time? Don't we have to make an effort?"