Bland direction is the least of the sins perpetrated by “The Passion of Joshua, the Jew,” a historical pic billing itself as the anti-Gibson “Passion” but in reality little more than recruiting propaganda for Jews for Jesus. Conceived by helmer Pasquale Scimeca as a salvo against anti-Semitism, pic doesn’t know how to handle its theme, and ends up championing the concept of the Christianized Jew rather than the universality of a Jewish Jesus-like figure during the Spanish Inquisition. Attempts to cast “Joshua” as an artfilm may win a few uncritical kudos at home, but pic has little chance of crossover markets.
Thanks to an auspicious confluence of events, Don Isaac Abravanel (Toni Bertorelli) believes Joshua (Leonardo Cesare Abude) is the Messiah. Son of Rabbi Josef, Joshua is a whiz at Scriptures but impossibly ignorant on everything else. When 1492 comes around and the Jews are expelled from Spain, Abravanel (an actual historical figure) sends his aide Johanni (Marcello Mazzarella) to bring the young man and his family to Naples, where Don Isaac has been welcomed at court.
Together with his mother Anna (Anna Bonaiuto) and sister Sara (Giordana Moscati), Joshua makes a perilous — though uninvolving — mountain crossing, eventually reaching the ship that takes them to Naples. But once there, the Jews are again blamed for a series of unfortunate events, and the family flees to Sicily, where Jews have been kicked out of the towns and must pretend to be Christian.
The Christ parallels come thick and fast, accompanied by Joshua’s increasing fascination with Jesus.
Unfortunately his actions fall afoul of the Inquisitor (Vincenzo Albanese), who hires two thugs to impersonate the soldiers in the Passion Play in which Joshua is starring. What follows is a linear retelling of the Crucifixion, complete with beatings, whippings — the whole shebang.
Scimeca, a former seminarian, discovered his own ancestors were Marranos — Jews forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition — and “Joshua” plays like an attempt to explain their actions. Joshua’s initial (historically impossible) naivete regarding Jesus is followed by an intense desire to learn ever more about this Messiah.
Notwithstanding a final quotation from Pope John XXIII on the need to make amends for the Church’s anti-Semitism, “Joshua” becomes a parable on the mistreatment of a Jew who’s become Christianized: He’s seen the light, emulated Jesus, but is still crucified. This certainly won’t be playing at Jewish fests.
To give Scimeca the benefit of the doubt, he knows not what he does, but the pedestrian nature of his screenplay, coscripted with Nennella Buonaiuto, also works against any well-meaning aims. Heavy-handed parallels between the Inquisition and present-day, with Jews and Muslims pointedly shown as brothers-in-exile, pushes the bounds of preachiness. Scene set-ups lack spontaneity.