Black Jesus (1968) Isn’t What You Think It Is

Black Jesus (1968) Directed by Valerio Zurlini Shown: Woody Strode

To view Black Jesus click here.

I’d honestly be shocked if more than a handful of people around here have heard of Black Jesus (1968) before today. Barely released in American theaters by one-shot outfit Plaza Pictures and never given a legitimate home video release (ignore the bootleg DVDs), this is a rough, tough and totally tight late 1960s political film with a title that might make you think it’s some sort of blaxploitation take on Godspell. The name seems a little gimmicky, but it isn’t too far off the original Italian title, Seduto alla sua destra, which translates to the Biblical phrase, “seated at the right hand (of the Father).”

This is actually a very passionate work by Valerio Zurlini, a very active player in Italy’s Communist Party and a resistance fighter in World War II who became a documentary shorts director in the 1950s. He wasn’t the most prolific director, but he did make his mark on international cinema primarily through two films, the assured romantic drama Girl with a Suitcase (1961), a fine showcase for Claudia Cardinale, and the star-packed war film, The Desert of the Tartars (1976). This one was made when revolutionary subject matter was all the rage in the latter half of the 1960s, with filmmakers turning social upheaval and political oppression into prime cinematic fodder. Though Jean-Luc Godard seemed to have that market cornered, you could find the trend everywhere from Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) to Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). Of course, that movement was tarnished a year later with Richard Fleischer’s bizarre biopic Che! (1969), but it was fun while it lasted.

In case you’re wondering, this film is running right now on FilmStruck as part of a four-film spotlight on actor Franco Citti, a staple in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini including his landmark Trilogy of Life with The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and The Arabian Nights (1974). Here you can see a fine sampling of their first two films, Accatone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), plus the much more commercial Western, Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968), which pairs Citti up with Chuck Connors! You’ll also probably recognize him from the first and third films in The Godfather franchise, in which he popped up as Calò.

Black Jesus (1968) Directed by Valerio Zurlini Shown: Woody Strode

Of course, the real star here is actually Woody Strode, whom we don’t really see until the 15-minute mark – and you only have to wait about six minutes before he’s sitting face to face with French screen veteran Jean Servais for an interrogation scene. A familiar face from Rififi (1955) and Le Plaisir (1952), among many others, Servais was still busy and in demand at the time, doing this the same year as the underrated caper film, They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968). On the other hand, Strode was still really coming into his own after years as a character actor. Granted, he’d been turning up in roles since the early 1950s and scored Hollywood coups with vivid turns in Spartacus (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but it was 1968 where he found far more high-profile roles and much more prominent billing in Europe with this and Shalako back to back, not to mention a silent but unforgettable bit at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West. (And yep, since everything is circular, you can also see him in Che!) It’s a joy to see him get so much screen time here as Lalubi, the self-sacrificing and inspirational leader of a Congo nation under siege from an invading European army intent on suppressing any form of dissent. Strode and Citti share quite a bit of time together as cellmates, swapping thoughts about everything from the nature of faith to the social inequality that plagues the globe. Despite the violent call to action on the film’s original poster (“He who ain’t with me – is against me”), it’s all really an argument for thoughtful dissent through nonviolent protest, showing how the resilience of the human spirit can prove to be an effective battering ram against subjugation.

This one’s especially surprising if you’re a fan of Italian cult films, so keep an eye out for that supporting cast. Hey, isn’t that Giuseppe Transocchi, a.k.a. Pavlos, the hulking mute servant with newly-replaced teeth from Suspiria (1977)? Yep, it is! And what about that prisoner in the flatbed who looks like a male fashion model? It’s none other than Stephen Forsythe, who would go on to play the lead in Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and write a rejected theme song for Never Say Never Again (1983) sung by Phyllis Hyman. (Go Google it and take a listen. Seriously!) And that Jeep-riding commanding officer seems familiar… it’s none other than Pier Paolo Capponi, who popped up as the chief investigator in The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and tried to convince us that it would be tough to be married to Dagmar Lassander in Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970).

On a related note, if you’re familiar with Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that almost everyone in this film appears to be speaking English, but their voices sound dubbed. That was a common practice at the time, with movies geared for an English-speaking international audience but shot without live sound; the soundtrack was created later, sometimes with the original actors if possible (and if their English was fluent), but more often than not you’ll hear the same voices coming from dozens of different actors in a multitude of genres. Even in Fellini movies there’s often no such thing as an “original” dialogue track with natural voices and lip movements (try comparing the English and Italian versions of Fellini – Satyricon [1969] or La Strada [1954] sometime!), and this one is no exception. After a while it just becomes part of the charm of these films as you feel like you’ve run into some old friends each time you hear their voices.

Nathaniel Thompson

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2 Responses Black Jesus (1968) Isn’t What You Think It Is
Posted By Arthur : September 20, 2017 1:21 am

Thanks for the heads up. btw intereting note about Woody Strode. He played two minor roles in THE 10 COMMANDMENTS, the King of Ethiopia and the charioteer for the Egyptian noblewoman who raised Moses.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 23, 2017 3:18 pm

Will definitely check this out. I love Woody Strode.

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