Son of Man

 After the worldwide success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004, one might well ask what direction the Jesus film could move in. An answer came very quickly. From South Africa. The film is Son of Man, 2006. It is a contemporary rendering of the Gospel story, spoken and sung in Xhosa and English. It opens the way to what many small groups were doing in the 1990s with their video cameras, making the Jesus story relevant to their own cultures.

A popular word used these days, when critical comments are offered about the lack of vision in so many film classics being remade, is 're-imagining'. In 2001, publicity told us that we were being treated to Tim Burton's 're-imagining' of the 1968 The Planet of the Apes. It is a good word. All of us do our re-imagining of so many stories. It is only right because the Gospels have been re-imagined in all art forms over two milennia, and in film during the 20th century.

What is distinctive about Son of Man?

In February 2006, U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, a contemporary version of Bizet's Carmen, set in a South African township near Cape Town, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. It was a fresh experience of Bizet's classic story, a dramatisation of the intense characters and interactions with South African images and South African voices. The local language, Xhosa, was used. The same company, with the same director, Mark Dornford-May, is responsible for Son of Man. Pauline Malefane, who played Carmen, is now Mary, mother of Jesus.

Given the role of music and dance in the South African tradition, Son of Man is filled with song, chant, humming, using a wide range of instruments, offering exciting variety as the film moves into its different moods. The cast are always ready to sway, stomp, dance, to fill the scenes with motion and emotion. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell had already brought contemporary melodies and rhythms to the Gospel in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of them (as with He Who Must Die, Jesus of Montreal and Corpus Christi) are about putting on a play about Jesus, the re-enactment of the story. Son of Man is showing us what the incarnation could be like if it happened now. This is the Jesus story in our times.

With this film, African audiences have the opportunity to appreciate the relevance of the Gospel to their own situations. Those from outside the African tradition are offered a chance to look at familiar stories with new eyes, with different perspectives.

The running time of the film is quite short, only 86 minutes. Clearly, not every Gospel episode can be included. The social and political dynamic behind this re-imagining of the Gospels means that the selection of events and the emphases are to be of a piece with the 'good news for Africa'. Jesus' encounters are limited here. There are no parables. While there is an emphasis on healings, the core of the Sermon on the Mount is what Jesus preaches.

On first viewing, Jesus may seem less charismatic than we might hope for, sometimes more unassuming than we might think he ought to be. However, on further viewing, the portrayal of Jesus by Andile Kosi combines a quiet compassion with earnest determination to carry out his mission of peace and justice. The character who makes a profound impact is Pauline Malefane's Mary. She is a big and strong woman, an earth-mother figure, with a powerful singing voice. The Magnificat after her experience of the annunciation is dramatic and memorable. At the end, she is the strong figure who stands up for the meaning of Jesus' life and death.

The Infancy stories

The Infancy narratives comprise a quarter of the film's running time. However, the film opens immediately with the temptations of Jesus and then flashes back. The Satan figure (as with The Greatest Story Ever Told and the 1999 Jesus) reappears frequently throughout the film. He is a blend of the charming appearance and the sinister attitude. He arrives at crises moments. He observes. We know that he is there and has his eye on Jesus.

The setting for the temptations is sandy and rocky desert terrain, but it is on the coast. The rock for bread is picked up from the ground. Satan's invitation to accept the kingdoms of this world are on a cliff top where Jesus pushes Satan away (quite vigorously). They sit on a sandy slope while Satan asks Jesus to worship him. This time Jesus roughly shoves him down, telling him 'Get behind me, Satan'. Satan says it is his world. Jesus retorts that it is his world and he repeats this later. The appearance of Jesus for non-Africans is arresting. He is covered in white paint which, fifteen minutes later, we find is part of his initiation ceremony as a man. The imagining of the temptations as part of this initiation rite makes good sense.

Suddenly, a voice speaks in English. We see a broadcast from Channel 7 from the kingdom of Judea, Africa. Herod is king. People are shown shooting and looting. Militia groups jog and chant. In this civil uprising, Mary is seen running for safety, the camera tracking along a school path, past empty classrooms. Mary takes refuge, dismayed at the dead bodies lying on the floor. She pretends to be dead and survives the gaze of a black-cloaked machete holder.

Suddenly, an angel appears.

There are many angels in Son of Man, most of them adolescents or young boys ­ with suggestions of feathers on their backs. It is interesting to see how easily angels can appear in this kind of African context, a context of myth, lore and song, a far cry from Western logic and reason for everything. The angel speaks the text of the annunciation in some detail. There are close-ups of Mary (this happens frequently throughout). She is puzzled. However, at the end of the angel's speech, she breaks out into a beautiful aria of The Magnificat (sounds of shooting in the background) which continues into the transition of seeing her pregnant, with Joseph, walking along the beach and arriving in a village where men with megaphones are summoning the population to register. The scene is still chaotic with military chasing citizens. Mary and Joseph are offered a stable-room.

The re-imagining of the nativity is delightfully local. Young children wander about, goats and goatherds, music and whistling and a chorus of angels chanting about the sun rising from the mountains ­ 'today we are united, one people'. Then the baby appears. Mary hums. Joseph looks on. A Gloria breaks out with angels sitting on the rafters. A child brings the gift of a young goat. Mary cuddles and plays with her son.

Music signals that the Magi are on the way, a long journey ­ and Jesus is seen wearing a paper party hat crown. Some time has passed and Mary is hanging out the clothes on the line. Jesus is now walking and talking. Mary is washing Jesus in a tub when the wise men are let through a road block and arrive with their gifts. Mary presents her son. And the angels are smiling.

But Herod urges the troops to look for the boy. Joseph is in the fields when he hears the megaphone announcing the registration of the infant males. Then it is night. Satan arrives and smiles. Gabriel stares at him. Day, and people are running scared. The soldiers search the shanties but the people are gone, walking an exodus in silence. They are set upon by the soldiers. Mary and Joseph have been at the end of the line and hide in the vegetation, Mary putting her hands over Jesus' eyes as the soldiers begin to kill the children with machetes. There is music of lamentation and Satan says, 'This is my world'.

In giving so much time to detail of the infancy narratives, Son of Man takes the audience into the African world, its violence and unrest, its language, its music and movement, its settings, its clothing, its sense of the transcendent, all of which prepares us for the mission of Jesus.

Jesus' ministry

The infancy flashback is now over. Young men are washing in the sea. They emerge and are painted white as part of the initiation ritual. Suddenly we are back to Jesus pushing Satan down the slope. The initiation is complete as Jesus has successfully confronted evil. An elder announces to the community that now they are men. They wash ­ and the film makes the transition to Jesus dressing for the road, farewelling his mother and leaving home. She sits and contemplates. Jesus walks through towns and villages, through factories and mine coal assembly lines choosing disciples (whose names come up on screen). During the film, they are not particularly delineated except for Peter and, of course, for Judas. Times are still violent with hooded men running ­ from these come James the Less and Philip. There are also women apostles, Andie and Thadea. Judas is shovelling coal for a train but also supplies guns to two men who arrive in a car ­ and their names come up on screen, Annas and Caiaphas.

As with Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, some devices are found to give the political background. Once again, we have Channel 7 which announces the death of Herod. The army of the Democratic Coalition, under Governor Pilate, announces an interim government which is at the service of the people and is to support democracy.

In the meantime, Jesus is seen with his followers in a room. He is teaching. They are responding, sometimes loudly and argumentatively. This is one of two key scenes where Jesus speaks his message. He highlights the evils of poverty and overcrowding. But, he warns that his followers are not to be corrupted. They are not to be violent. They have a right to their beliefs but they must never kill. As night falls with a curfew, he invites his disciples to hand in their weapons ­ as one of the apostles does so, he has a visual memory of his mother desperately urging him as a child to shoot.

Satan appears again, watching. The screenplay takes the story from John 8 of the woman taken in adultery as a key event for Jesus' message. Here the accusers pour petrol over her and want Jesus to give an answer so they can burn her. In this episode, Jesus is less emotional than one would expect. He does not accuse the woman and lets her go. He sternly tells her to 'go'. There is a puzzling moment when her jewelry is returned to her ­ but then we see her going to a pawnbroker, then to a merchant where she buys some fine ointment and then enters into the banquet room and pours the ointment over Jesus' feet as she weeps. While Jesus rebukes the host (a woman) about his not receiving the courtesy of washing when he arrived, it is Judas who makes a scene and complains about the money and how it could have been used for the poor of the country. He says Jesus is corrupt and his behaviour inappropriate. Jesus tells Judas he wanted to offer a lesson of peace.

This is exemplified as the hostess takes the sinful woman, caringly sits her down and sings to her, joined by a chorus of women. Judas sits at his table, frowning.


From this point on, Son of Man not only uses the device of television news but Judas has a videocamera with which he films Jesus. This material is then viewed by Caiaphas and Annas and is taken to Governor Pilate as evidence of Jesus' political ambitions. This device works well as it uses contemporary technology (as Judas notes in Jesus Christ Superstar, in 4 BC there was no mass communication) and enables us to observe Jesus from a Judas' eye viewpoint.

Judas has complained to the bosses that Jesus has focused in his teaching on 'invisible morals' and ideals. Yet, Jesus' sayings are particularly strong and pointed. While he says that authority is divinely instituted, he tells his disciples that they are to follow him. He says that he has not come to disrupt the law (in a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-18) but to be creative. He wants to do away with all hate. Then he is more specific. He attacks the tribalism and corruption of Africa, people being beaten and tortured in the Middle East, the child labour scandals of Asia, the unjust trade subsidies of Europe and the US and the restriction of necessary medicines because of patent disputes. People disappear. We are lied to. 'Evil did not fall.'

Miracles follow.

The first is a brief rendition of the paralytic (here a young boy) who is lowered through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus is speaking of the innate goodness of human beings and warning that his followers are not to be a suspicious group. He holds the boy who is jolted into health. Next, there is a scene in a funeral parlour (videoed). Jesus arrives and asks for the coffin to be opened ­ and the comment is made about the stench. But Jesus prays, touches the dead man on the forehead and he too is jolted back into life. The choir chants and there is a panorama of a rainbow. Then, on the road, Jesus hears a child's cry. Again the scene is videoed for evidence, a greenish and swirling picture of a child in a fit. Jesus calms the child, raises the child and smiles ­ and we see Annas and Caiaphas watching the television monitor. They demand of Judas proof of Jesus' political ambitions.

Jesus is now an acclaimed leader and stands on a high, makeshift plinth (again recorded). He urges 'collective dialogue', for them to act as a group and to treat people with dignity, to unite. The people are excited and dance but military personnel turn up and declare the gathering illegal and force the people to disperse. Jesus gets down ­ and stops Peter throwing stones. Judas runs the length of an abandoned building and declares that he has 'got him', handing over the camera to Annas and Caiaphas while extending his hand to receive money.

Riots get worse. Citizens are beaten and the governor goes on television to impose martial law: to protect democracy requires hard decisions, to impose order one must be strong, to achieve peace, we must use force. Women protest in the streets and lay their babies on the road. The men do a sit-in cradling the children.

As the crowds in the township raise Jesus aloft and carry him in triumph in Palm Sunday exhilaration, the authorities tell Jesus that he is a minority and will not allow him to disrupt what they have worked for for years. In the meantime, Mary packs and leaves home, arriving in the busy city with its cars and freeways and overpass steps.

We see Annas and Caiaphas watching the video of Jesus on the plinth and realise they are watching it with Pilate who says it is not evidence. He pours himself a glass of water, accidentally spilling it on his hands. He tacitly allows Annas and Caiaphas to act against Jesus.

The Passion

Jesus is in a house with Mary at the sink, a microwave next to it. The Last Supper sequence follows. As Jesus hands round a big can from which the apostles drink, they see in the base of the can, in blood coloured tones, images of torture, killing and lamentation, a front-end loader scooping up a corpse. He does not need (and does not) say, 'this is my blood'. Jesus says he will be betrayed while Judas collects the used plates. Jesus tells him to go. He also warns Peter that he will deny him.

The agony sequences take place in a sandy area with large open pipes for a pipeline. The apostles watch Jesus, 'Brother, you're troubled', but do not really support him. Jesus goes apart. Satan is present again but Jesus asks a small angel if this suffering can pass. He begs the apostles to be with him but the noisy crowds approach. Satan watches. Once again there is the video camera, catching Jesus say, 'I am he' while Judas looks straight to camera and kisses Jesus.

The film-makers said they wanted the passion sequences to be relevant to South African experience, especially the torture and death characteristic of the apartheid regime. So, Jesus is hustled down to a secret place in what looks like an abandoned factory and bashed. Judas exits from this hidden torture room and vomits. When Annas and Caiaphas offer Jesus a share in power, Jesus urges them to talk because they cannot beat him into agreeing. There is a grim long shot of Jesus being bashed again. His body is then bundled into the boot of a car.

Judas looks dismayed as vivid lightning flashes. Peter, hiding, in a pipe is accosted by military who say they have seen him with Jesus. He denies Jesus by saying people look alike. Nothing happens to him as the soldiers are summoned away by walkie talkie.

Jesus' body is driven out into the countryside and, in images familiar from torture films from many countries, his body is carried in a blanket to a place where a hole is dug and he is tipped in. In the meantime, back on television, Annas and Caiaphas are being interviewed. They will work in collaboration with the government and work out a timeline for withdrawal for the occupying forces.

Mary does not know of Jesus' death. A grieved young man from the burial party finds Mary amid a group of protesters chanting against the occupiers and holding photos of Jesus as they burn effigies of Annas and Caiaphas on upraised crosses. Mary screams and laments.

It is interesting at this point to wonder how the film will treat the resurrection. Mary and the women go to the burial hole and Mary starts to remove the branches and dig for the body. We cut to her holding the body of Jesus in Pieta fashion. We are then invited to contemplate this tableau as the camera follows Mary holding Jesus on the back of a utility truck, moving along a modern freeway with its overpasses.

What follows is surprising. Mary ties the arms of Jesus to a cross with scarves. Jesus is lifted up on the cross for all to see and, in the words of John's Gospel, he draws all people to himself. This is the sign of the cross. People are going about their everyday work and chores but they see Jesus and approach. Mary stands at the foot of the cross and sings a chant previously heard, 'The land is covered in darkness'. A helicopter flies over. Mary and Peter begin to dance, stomp and chant: 'unity, freedom fighters, strength, comrades'.

However, soldiers approach with guns, the people scatter as they are given two minutes to disperse. Mary stands her ground, looks at Jesus on the cross, slowly approaches the military, a shot of her with rifles framing her and Jesus crucified in the background. She sings and she dances, 'the land is covered in darkness'. The women join in.

That is not the end. A bright wall painting of a cross is seen. Silence. Then the empty grave and slowly a silhouette of Jesus appears. This time the chant is of the sun rising, 'we are united'. The shadow cast by Jesus grows and the angels smile. And now, Jesus walks up the sand hill, happy, followed by what can only be described as a multitude of angels. He raises his arm in the gesture of defiant hope.

Jesus is risen.

During the end credits, after a quote from Genesis that we are made in God's image, there is a sequence of photos of a range of ordinary people. This Gospel is good news for everyone.

In this overview of Son of Man, we can see where there are similarities to the previous Jesus film. But, we can also discern many ways for the future in re-imaging the Gospel narrative, of appreciating what the incarnation might entail and mean were it to happen in our time, society and culture. This opens the way to many more, and varied, Jesus films.
LONDON - 6 March 2008 - 650 words

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