Portraying Jesus Christ in distinctly human rather than divine terms, “The Garden of Eden” maps the formative 18-year period spanning his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, which immediately precedes the Gospels and is interpreted in the Apocrypha. Given the often heatedly divergent views on this unchronicled period in biblical history, and the automatic controversy factor of a film on the subject being made in the shadow of Vatican City, director Alessandro D’Alatri has delivered a surprisingly conventional, peace-and-love vision that seems unlikely to raise temperatures even in the most devout circles. Visually accomplished but rather bland and dramatically naive, the film will struggle to find a theatrical niche outside of predominantly Catholic territories like Italy, where it goes out next month backed by a flower-child ad campaign.
One of Italy’s most successful advertising directors, D’Alatri is best known for his sensitively handled 1994 drama, “No Skin.” There is little to suggest what attracted the director to this spiritual road movie, which despite its vaguely New Age sensibility, remains as respectful and unchallenging as any standard religious drama produced for Easter and Christmas TV slots.
The screenplay by D’Alatri and Sephardic writer Miro Silvera uses the actual names of the time, rather than those of the Bible. Jeoshua (Kim Rossi Stuart) is introduced as an adult recounting the journey that led him into the desert, where he was picked up by the Essenes, baptized and accepted into their monastery-like community. Building a bridge between Catholicism and Judaism, the film recaps his Jewish upbringing in Galilee, his yeshiva studies and the humane education he received from his father, Josef (Omar Chenbod), whose open-mindedness and morality partly precipitate the spiritual questioning that becomes Jeoshua’s path to enlightenment.
Witnessing the stoning of an adulteress, crucifixions, slavery and the brutality of Roman soldiers, Jeoshua begins a dialogue with God, asking for a key to understand the ways of man. Increasingly drawn to the outside world, he leaves his village and experiences betrayal from a friend (Said Taghmaoui), who leaves him in the desert to die. Conflict intrudes on his initial harmony with the Essenes when Jeoshua begins to clash with them over questions like carnality.
The film plays this potentially volatile issue safe by having Jeoshua campaign on behalf of another Essene (popular Italian singer Lorenzo Cherubini, aka Jovanotti). But while it fails to go as far as other religious dramas, likeMartin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the inference here and in other moments is that Jeoshua was a man, with an ordinary man’s desires.
Feeling cut off from the world in an environment that provides no test for his purity, Jeoshua sets off again. The final section of the film moves into more familiar biblical territory, when he re-encounters his cousin Jochannan (Boris Terral), who later became known as John the Baptist. Having already begun preaching, he recognizes Jeoshua as a much higher representative of God than him before being dragged off for execution by Herod’s soldiers.
What religious audiences will perhaps most be taken aback by is the absence of a sense of entitlement and of any acknowledgment that Jeoshua is the son of God. The film and Italian teen heartthrob Rossi Stuart’s intense, soulful performance instead depict him as a kind of philosophically questing proto-hippie. But even those ready to pounce on any sign of a blasphemous approach may find themselves underwhelmed by the film’s timidity in transgressing far from widely accepted beliefs and its lack of a sense of drama.
Technically assured aside from the sometimes less-than-smooth dubbing of non-Italian cast members, the film was shot in the Moroccan desert and cries out for widescreen. It nonetheless looks impressive thanks to d.p. Federico Masiero’s sharp but unobtrusive lensing, Luca Merlini’s production design and Sergio Bollo’s costumes. Cecilia Zanuso’s editing establishes a gentle rhythm for the journey, which is effectively backed by the Middle Eastern–themed music , often with chanting and vocals, of Pivio and Aldo De Scalzi.