Son of Man

‘Together we shall lead ourselves, whether it be to glory or destruction.’ – Jesus in Son of Man

I’ve been meaning to start posting again, so when I saw that Catholic Anarchy had a post about the upcoming US release of Son of Man (directed by Mark Dornford-May), it seemed like a good opportunity to start back up.  Father Lloyd Baugh, a Jesuit at the Gregorian, came to Durham this week to screen the film and give a paper comparing it to other Jesus films.  My brief review is going to contain spoilers, in a sense.  I mean, most people know how the story ends, but I’m going to talk about specific sequences contained in the film.

Son of Man is unique as far as Jesus films go (to my knowledge).  Jesus is black.  He is presented as an unambiguously political figure, but still performs miracles (so he’s not just a political figure).  The film chooses to merge biblical stories with African rituals.  Instead of the baptism of Christ, we see him go through an African ritual undergone by young men who are coming of age.  Basically, Son of Man is a Jesus film from the perspective of liberation theology presented in a fictionalized South African context.

The film’s merit is found in its representation of the Gospel stories.  That is, as a film, it is decent, but not spectacular.  It might have been confusing at points for those not familiar with these stories.  Occasionally the acting is a little forced.  The scene where Jesus calls the disciples contains freeze frames: we see the disciple or disciples, the frame freezes, turns sepia, and the disciple’s name appear in red.  The whole thing felt a bit Tarentino.  One redeeming element of the sequence, however, is the way it enabled the film to present female disciples: the traditional name is shown and we see the letters change to feminize the name (I think Phillip becomes Phillipa, Andrew becomes Andie, etc.).

These moments of aesthetic faltering, amazingly, don’t detract from the force of the movie.  The film opens with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, but then goes back to the Annunciation.  News casts show a war between the ruling party and an insurgency in the fictional region of South Africa, Judea.  The scene cuts to Mary hiding running from insurgent soldiers.  She hides in a classroom amongst the bodies of dead children.  It’s there that Gabriel comes to her.

Throughout the film, familiar stories are reinterpreted in the South African context:

– the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted as insurgent soldiers take the butts of their guns and bludgeon children to death (though this time Jesus refuses to flee)

– Jesus goes into the mines to call the disciples

– Judas is a former child soldier

– Jesus saves a prostitute who has been doused in gasoline.

– During the last supper, Jesus and the disciples share a communal pot, but say nothing to one another.  As the pot passes from one disciple to another, the scene is cut with still frames of murdered children.

– The Garden of Gethsemane becomes a little area off the side of the road.

The most interesting points, in my opinion, are found in three scenes:

(1) Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to bring change by organizing the people, but says they must proceed without violence.  He puts a bag on the table and the disciples place their guns in the bag.

(2) There is an amazing scene which plays off the story of Jesus healing the man who is lowered through the roof of a building.  The amazing part isn’t the miracle, though.  It is the speech that precedes the miracle.  Jesus pretty much gives a liberation theologians critique of imperialism, decrying trade zones, the deployment of aid, the corruption of government officials… I don’t remember the exact points made, but the scene is powerful.

(3) Finally, and most interesting, we have the death and resurrection (not really a scene, but rather a good chunk of the last third or so of the film).  Jesus is captured, taken to a shed and beaten to death.  They dump his body in the back of a truck, drive him into the desert, and bury him in a shallow grave.  The Centurion returns to the city and finds Mary at a political rally.  He tells her that they have killed Jesus and takes her to the grave.  She digs up the body and they take him back to the city.  There is a fantastic shot of the pieta, refigured as Mary sitting on a plastic chair in the back of a beat up truck (I tried to find a picture, but there doesn’t seem to be one available – personally, I think they should have used the image on posters for the film).  Mary ties Jesus’ dead body to the cross and people begin to gather and sing.  Soldiers order the rally to disperse and fire shots into Jesus’ body.  Some people flee, but Mary and the disciples resume their singing in defiance of the military.  We then see the empty grave of Jesus, followed by a shot of Jesus and the angels walking through the desert, presumably back to the city.

I find this presentation of Jesus’ death particularly interesting because the power of the resurrection isn’t presented as Jesus coming back to life (at least initially).  Rather it is found in the community that rises up after his death.  The tomb is empty because Mary, and then the disciples, refuse to accept Jesus’ death.  Resurrection and Pentecost are in a sense collapsed into a moment of action whereby a community is formed.  It all sounds a bit like Zizek, doesn’t it? (not to suggest that Zizek is the only one who says these kinds of things… he’s just the one I read)  Of course this is just my take on it.

There are lots of other interesting aspects of the film, most importantly the role of women, that deserve attention.  Hopefully, with the US release of the film, these other aspects will receive the attention they deserve.

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5 comments

  1. Thomas,

    I’m curious. You briefly mentioned that Jesus’ speech when healing the man lowered through the roof was liberation-esque. Is it the case that most liberation theologians decry the deployment of aid altogether? I’m not that familiar with much liberation writings – I’m in the process of familiarizing myself. So, I’m wondering, while I agree that foreign aid as deployed by powers of the West under the current alignment of powers is surely not a beneficent act of kindness, is there a place for both the contribution of aid through a restructured foreign relation policy, through imaginative aid tactics, and through reconfiguring what type of resources would even constitute “aid” and also a way to allow for the (semi)autonomous creation of liberated nations?

    1. Sorry, I could have been more specific. Liberation theology would be opposed to certain kinds of aid – namely the kind of aid favoured by the US, Canada, and Europe. Originally this was motivated by liberation theology’s reliance upon/connection to dependency theory. While as a whole dependency theory has fallen out of vogue, it’s insights have been reiterated in post-colonial theory. So aid is distributed, but it comes with the baggage of trade agreements and debilitating economic policies that create conditions that make independent development nearly impossible. A good example of a critique of aid would be Peter Hallward’s analysis of the function of aid agencies in Haiti in his Damming the Flood. While Hallward isn’t a liberation theologian, the kind of analysis he offers is, I think, a model of what liberation theology’s critique of aid should strive for.

      1. Gotcha. That makes sense. And yes, Hallward’s article on Haiti was, I thought, spot on.

        Thanks for the clarification!

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