Il messia (1975)


(director/writer: Roberto Rossellini; screenwriter: Silvia D’Amico Bendico; cinematographer: Mario Montuori; editors: Jolanda Benvenuti/ Laurent Quaglio; cast: Carlos de Carvalho, Toni Ucci, Flora Carabella; Runtime: 140; Orizzonte 2000 / Silvia d’Amico Bendico; 1975-Italy/France)
“It was an unbearably dull and simplistic film: poorly acted and with a vile and inaccurate depiction of Jews…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Roberto Rossellini’s attempt at telling the Christ story. This is the last film made by the celebrated Italian neorealist. It was made for Italian TV and was completed in 1975 (Rossellini died in 1977). “The Messiah” did not surface in the States until this year, as it was released on video and it still remains one of his least known films. This is not a good swan song for him to go out on. It was an unbearably dull and simplistic film: poorly acted and with a vile and inaccurate depiction of Jews, the scenery consisted of gaudy TV stage sets, and there was just no emotion drawn from the story. It was so badly done, that it seemed like all the figures were wooden. It therefore doesn’t surprise me that this film was rarely seen, even in Europe, the producers were probably happy to bury it.

Rossellini has had a checkered past in films due to his controversial political viewpoints and controversial lifestyle. He comes from a wealthy family, his father was an architect. Rossellini showed his love for film as an amateur by making short subject films. In 1938, he was recruited by the Fascist regime to make films, and started out as a collaborator on the script of Luciano Serra Pilota (38). This was strictly a propaganda film and Il Duce’s son was the film’s supervisor. He made a few more Fascist-commissioned films and in 1943 he shot Desiderio, which was a precursor of his trademarked neorealist style to come later.

In the postwar years, Rossellini caught the attention of the intellectual crowd because of his neorealist style and became one of their favorites, causing him to have a large international following. His WW11-theme trilogy captured the fancy of the public and the neorealism movement. He made Open City (45), Paisan (46), and Germany Year Zero (47). He gradually moved away from the neorealism movement and by the early ’50s “The Ingrid Bergman” period developed. The Swedish-born actress was a successful Hollywood star who wrote him a fan letter and suggested they work together on a film. In 1950, they married amid a public scandal. They both left their spouses and lived as lovers before their divorces could come through. For that, the couple were constantly scandalized by the print media.

Because the public reacted poorly to their private lives, both film careers suffered greatly. Together they made Stromboli (49), a film that I liked very much and thought it was underrated. Rossellini also made Strangers in 1953, which might be the best film he made during this period. By 1957 Rossellini fell in love with Indian screenwriter Somali Das Gupta, whose pregnancy led to his separation and divorce from Ingrid. He had a rough few years from the movie public, who stayed away from his films and booed him at the Moscow film festival. In 1959, he started his way back in the public’s favor with General Della Rovere. By the 1960s he was doing many TV movies, culminating in this one.

The first mistake Rossellini made in “The Messiah” was that he went back to the time of the first Hebrew king, Saul, and tried to tell in an anecdotal form the history of eleven centuries, leading up to the empty tomb of Christ after the crucifixion. He chose for himself an impossible task and proved that he was only haphazardly able to cover such complex themes; such as, why a king was such a terrible concept as conceived by the Hebrews; how the Hebrew tribes fought amongst themselves; the John the Baptist story; and, finally his emphasis on Jesus’s own people, the Pharisees, delivering him to the Romans to be killed. The Romans are made to seem like benign rulers, only too glad to please the Jews and grant them their wish. The cruelty of the Romans was never even hinted at. Rossellini also took the religion out of Jesus and made the rabbi seem as if he was merely a moralist, who was more a humanitarian and a Mr. Nice Guy than anything else. I found this a difficult film to find anything in it that was praiseworthy. The director was trying to go back to film in his neorealism style, but couldn’t even come close to duplicating the passionate films he is best remembered for. This film is only for those who feel compelled to see all of Rossellini’s films from 1936-1978: the good, the bad, and the ugly.