The best depiction of Jesus Christ onscreen is also, alas, one of the least-known (type its title into IMDb, and you'll wade through five higher-ranked results). Dennis Potter's feverish 1969 teleplay Son of Man depicts the most famous and celebrated figure in the history of the world as a dirty, half-mad prophet trembling in the wilderness and bellowing at his followers, with nary a miracle in sight (when Jesus performs an exorcism, the woman in his arms appears to die). Yet as depicted by a fully-committed Colin Blakely, this ferocious wild man is among the most charismatic and compelling Christs I've ever seen: fascinating in his forceful delivery and admirable in his consistency, responding to slaps, goads, and outright torture with a determination to practice what he preaches by "loving his neighbor." Given that these neighbors include the cunning high priest Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton) and the flagrantly cruel and condescending Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy), this is no small order. This Jesus gets no relief, no reward - there is no happy ending, no Easter Sunday resurrection following the Good Friday execution. He moans those famous words, "Why have you forsaken me?", expires, and the lights dim while the camera pulls back.
Although this is without reservation a filmed play (it even aired on a BBC series entitled "The Wednesday Play"), and Potter himself later complained that Son of Man was "shot on video in three days in an electronic studio on a set that looks as though it's trembling and about to fall down," in fact there is a visceral cinematic punch to the images. Director Gareth Davies inserts us into the midst of crowds with his jostling handheld aesthetic, while he complements dramatic dialogue with subtly sweeping dollies and slow-burning pans: the camera is always moving. (One over-eager tilt, playing with the shadow of the cross behind Jesus' head, even captures an unprepared boom mic in the frame.) The compulsively choppy cutting also keeps us on the edge of our seat: often we'll leap from the very tail-end of one character's sentence to a desert sermon reaching its climax, crowd caught in mid-cheer. In Potter's and Davies' hands, the ancient world becomes immediate and we are plunged headfirst into a tumultuous hothouse of rabblerousers, spiritual seekers, and cruel overlords. In this sense, the "trembling" set "about to fall down" is a virtue, this soundstage barely able to contain the sparks flying to and fro.
The film intercuts three characters' storylines, playing various worldviews off one another: a bored, callous Pilate (no noble handwasher of legend) debating Jesus' importance with soldiers and fellow administrators; a cagey yet not completely corrupt Caiaphas caught between appeasement of his Roman ruler and satisfaction of Messiah-hungry Jerusalem; and finally, a Jesus quite distant from the coiled intellectualism and burdensome political power of the other two central characters, but no less tormented by his sense of duty. Initially described as a "loon," he wanders through the desert picking up followers and preaching the word of God, winning coverts as much through passionate, two-fisted delivery as through the stark, intoxicating words spilling from his lips. Screened at a time when youthful radicals were spurning conventional power structures and living by instinct and camaraderie rather than cold, careful strategy, Son of Man presents a Jesus whose earthy presence is a manifestation of the spiritual truths he represents. Colin Blakely invests this Christ with a hearty appreciation for the tangible, caressing a cross while ironically admiring the quality of its timber (in the film's most celebrated line, Jesus sighs, "You should have stayed a tree, and I should have stayed a carpenter").
The grubby, sweaty physicality of this Biblical landscape is underscored by frequent eruptions of brutality. Numerous bodies are beaten to a gory pulp in clashes between Romans and Jews, Pilate casually discusses pacifism while a gladiator is mutilated before his eyes, and Jesus himself is raised atop the cross with stinging lacerations criss-crossing his torso. In one of Son of Man's most chilling moments, the culmination of violence is suggested rather than shown: Pilate slaps around a beautiful maidservant while she proclaims her faith in Christ's message of love, and then a few scenes later we discover (via an off-hand remark) that she was subsequently flogged to death. The film even opens by cross-cutting (no pun intended) Jesus' solitary seizure in the wilderness with a Roman massacre in the Jewish Temple. Immediately we are taught to link spiritual and physical torment, social upheaval with inner turmoil. Hard-won clarity and lingering pain go hand in bloody hand.
Son of Man's recognition of the physical and psychological costs of being divinely possessed - and its consequent depiction of a doubtful, very human Jesus - link it to another revisionist Biblical film, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). I'm currently reading the Nikos Kazantzakis book on which that film was based, and the similarities are striking - both stories depict Jesus asking God repeatedly, "Is it me?" (and almost seeming to plead that it not be) and both authors focus on tensions between revolutionary, anti-Roman currents in Messianic Judaism and the universalist, peaceful, inner-centered message of Jesus. Yet there are notable differences too: while both Potter and Kazantzakis envision the traitorous Judas Iscariot as a crucial character and kind of audience surrogate, Son of Man reveals him as a lamb of a man, arguing for mercy from his worldly leader as he's forced to betray his spiritual leader, while Last Temptation features an angry redheaded brute of a Judas, a man of ironclad convictions, determined to challenge Christ because he isn't forceful enough. Likewise, the two stories have opposite interpretations of Jesus himself: the Christ of Last Temptation is fragile, wavering, an innocent overwhelmed by God's grace, while the Son of Man is rough-hewn, thick-bodied, vibrating with a manly sense of righteous fury.
Finally the two tales of Christ suggest different authorial visions of the grace of God and the coming of his Kingdom. On page at least, Kazantzakis struggles less with having faith than following it - his Jesus knows what God wants and resists because it terrifies him, not because he doubts its truth; in the world of the novel we too are guided to feel God's mysterious but undeniable presence. Whereas Potter paints a picture that, suiting its medium, is externalized: we hear Jesus' preaching, we see the impact it has (including on Pilate and Caiaphas, struck by doubts at the moment of condemnation), but when the potential Messiah is asked for proofs of his divinity, he denies them not only to his onscreen interlocutors but to us. The ambiguous presentation of Jesus' otherworldliness and the film's apparently pessimistic ending challenge us to draw our own conclusions. Potter cannot tell us if Jesus' words are correct, if his path is the one to follow: only by listening and thinking for ourselves can we decide. It's a credit to the power of Potter's speeches, Davies' presentation, and especially Blakely's performance that at film's end our greatest temptation is to believe.
"Son of Man" was featured at 1:05 in "To Become Immortal, and Then, to Die", Chapter 19 of my video clip series. I also included Blakely's Jesus in the "Living Myths" category among my 100 favorite film characters of all time, and awarded the film Best Actor and Best Screenplay in my "alternate Oscars" for 1969 (it also made my top 5 for that year).
Be sure to check out Allan Fish's review of "Son of Man" which introduced me to this film. And finally, you can watch "Son of Man" itself on YouTube, which seems to be the only place it is available right now: