TEHRAN -- A man wrapped in a shawl stood at the door.
Jesus sat and peeled an orange as his companion, Nader Talebzadeh, began to speak, precisely, so as not to be misunderstood on a matter so sensitive. The Iranian director's new film is based on the Islamic version of the life of Jesus, depicting the man Christians believe to be the messiah and son of God as a tormented Judean prophet foretelling the coming of Muhammad, the founder of the Muslim faith.
One might imagine such a tale may not screen well in the red states of America. The film, nearly 10 years in the making, draws on the Koran and the putative Gospel of Barnabas, considered by many Western scholars a medieval fable. The premise of "Jesus, the Spirit of God" is that Jesus was compassionate and performed miracles, but was not crucified or resurrected from the dead. The message implies that Christianity, a faith of 2 billion people and the core of much Western philosophy, is based on a falsehood.
"I pray for Christians. They've been misled. They will realize one day the true story," said Talebzadeh, whose film has been screened at international film festivals and is being marketed for wider release.
"People might use this film as a strategy to further demonize Iran," he said. "They may succeed. But I hope once you see that the focus of the film is sacred, it will overwhelm. No one would have imagined that an Iranian would make a film to glorify Jesus."
Not to mention an Iranian who supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and believes 9/11 was partly a U.S. government conspiracy. "Someone masterminded something," he said. "And this is the cause for a lot of evil America is doing in this part of the world."
There is another irony. The actor who plays Jesus, Ahmad Soleimani-Nia, once was a soldier in the Iranian army and later a welder for Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, which the Bush administration accuses of pursuing nuclear weapons. Such footnotes don't seem odd when talking with Talebzadeh, who has kept Nia in Jesus character -- flowing hair, beard, mystic pose -- for seven years because he never knows when he might shoot new sequences for the film.
"Jesus, the Spirit of God" comes out of Iran at a time of hostile rhetoric between Washington and Tehran and a divide between Islam and the West that has produced jihad websites, DVDs on the apocalypse, editorial cartoons lampooning Muhammad and a recent Osama bin Laden tape condemning Pope Benedict XVI for a "new crusade" against Islam.
Religion has long been at the heart of tensions between East and West, but it is being swept into a wider cultural war played out on the Internet, film and satellite TV in which icons and sacred texts have been attacked and manipulated. A new Dutch film by a right-wing politician, who compares the Koran to Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," depicts Islam as a violent faith. In response, a Saudi blogger posted a video suggesting that the Bible could be read as a document for war.
Talebzadeh knows that his Jesus walks on volatile terrain; one wonders, given the tenor of the times, how many fatwas would be issued if a Western director made a film suggesting that Muhammad, whose depiction is forbidden under Islamic tradition, was someone other than the prophet.
"There is so much wrong with this man's understanding of Jesus and Christianity," wrote an incensed Christian blogger, referring to Talebzadeh in a conversation about the film that is unfolding in cyberspace. "It's another piece of Satanic propaganda intended to accomplish no meaningful purpose in this world."
The rough, choppily edited $5-million film, condensed from a 1,000-minute-long series that will soon air on Iranian TV, reveres Jesus as a blessed prophet speaking parables and moving through soft light and angelic chants amid a ruckus of zealots and conspiring Pharisees. The narrative and dialogue are attributed to Islamic teachings and Jesus' disciple Barnabas, whose gospel the director said was hidden by church authorities so as not to undermine the established Christian faith.
Scholars believe that the gospel, not included in the canon of the early Catholic Church, was written by others centuries later and ascribed to Barnabas. It overlaps with the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but it does not present Jesus as the son of God. Barnabas' tale resonates with Muslims who believe that it supports the Koran's teaching that Jesus, though born of a virgin, was not divine, but one of the last great prophets. Talebzadeh's film shows Jesus ascending to heaven before Roman soldiers come for him; Judas, the disciple who betrays him, is transformed into the likeness of Jesus and crucified. According to Islamic traditions, Jesus is alive and will return to defeat evil.
"Barnabas is a missing link the world is not ready to accept. It's a piece of literature we should look into," said Talebzadeh, a man with a graying beard who sat in his office the other day before a bowl of fruit.
Draped in a shawl and legs crossed as if in meditation, Nia-as-Jesus lingered behind Talebzadeh looking very much like a 1970s rock star. He was quiet, serene, a former welder with a thespian calling drifting between the Koran and the New Testament. He had never acted before, but his light skin and angular features mixed with Middle East repose conjured an aura of Western aesthetics and Eastern spirituality.
"I've never been able to resolve why I am so drawn to Jesus," said Nia, a Muslim born in the western mountains of Iran near Iraqi Kurdistan. "It goes back to when I was a boy of 7 or 8. I saw a painting of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper' and I identified with Jesus. He has always been with me. In my neighborhood, with my long hair and beard, I am known as Jesus."
Talebzadeh grew up in Iran under the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In 1970, he moved to the United States, where he says he studied at American University in Washington, D.C., and Columbia University in New York. He witnessed a convulsive American decade of antiwar protests over Vietnam and the resignation of Richard Nixon.