TEHERAN, IRAN — Two years before Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” drew filmgoers throughout the Mideast, Islamic documaker Nader Talebzadeh decided the time had come to tell the story of Jesus from the Muslim perspective.
A film teacher who studied cinema at Columbia U. in the 1970s and who once lived in Virginia, he was acquainted with what he calls Christian “Good News” ideas. He also had hosted debates on Iranian TV where Gibson’s popular movie was discussed, including its perceived anti-Semitism.
“I think Gibson’s film is very well made, and made with great belief,” Talebzadeh told Variety, “but it’s the wrong story.”
Thus was born “The Messiah” (or “Good Tidings of the Savior” in Farsi), a two-hour-plus feature film and a TV series shot for Iranian TV.
With over 1,000 actors and extras, it is one of the largest film productions ever attempted in Iran. It will air as 20 45-minute episodes after a theatrical version is released here.
Screened as a work-in-progress at the Fajr Film Festival, the film tells the story of Jesus’ birth and teachings using the Koran as its main source. Rather controversially, it follows traditional Western iconography in depicting Jesus with a light complexion and flowing chestnut hair, over objections that he should look “more Palestinian.”
Most foreign fest programmers quickly decided the film wasn’t for their audiences and left the screening before the end, when the story diverges from the Biblical version. Here Jesus, who is not the Son of God but the last prophet of Israel come to announce the prophet Muhammad, is saved from crucifixion by Allah and ascends to Heaven on the night of the Last Supper.
One of his disciples — in Talebzade’s personal reading, Judas Iscariot — is crucified in his place when his face is miraculously transformed into Jesus’ likeness.
In the film market, “The Messiah” excited much comment both pro and con and made several sales. South African distributor Habib Mackie of Tinsel Curtain Motion Pictures said he plans to open the film wide with as many prints as “The Passion of the Christ.”
“I hope it will be the occasion for dialogue between the faithful among Christians and the faithful among Muslims,” says Talebzadeh, who believes the film has a serious message for evangelical Christians.
“In my film Jesus is revered very highly and works even more miracles than in the Bible. We await his coming back to earth at the end of time, when faithful Christians and Muslims will fight side by side in a huge battle.”
He is anxious to see the North American reaction. “It’s more than a movie,” he insists, in an uncanny echo of Gibson. “I have a mission to project this information.”