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An Iranian's vision of Jesus' life stirs debate
Another in a series of occasional articles.
TEHRAN -- A man wrapped in a shawl stood at the door.
"This is Jesus," said another man.
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.
For much of that time, Iran was a U.S. ally. That changed in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led an Islamic revolution that toppled the shah and resulted in 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days.
"I returned to Iran feeling there was a huge misunderstanding in the West about my country," he said. "Iran was being demonized."
Talebzadeh directed a number of documentaries on themes such as the Bosnian conflict and the Iran-Iraq war. In 1999, he began filming "Jesus, the Spirit of God," which grew out of a passion that began decades earlier when he attended a school in Tehran with Christians and continued over his fascination with the purported writings of Barnabas.
"If there's one thing in my life I wanted to do, this film is it," said the director, whose Jesus movie won an interfaith dialogue award at the 2007 Religion Today Film Festival in Italy. "I didn't say Jesus wasn't crucified, God did. It's in the Koran. . . . The film is made with faith. I tried to do it as beautifully as I could."
He added that he hoped his 35-millimeter film would start a conversation between religions: "In the 21st century, the arts and the media have to create an area for more cordial discussions between faiths at a time when information is moving in the blink of an eye. . . . We should be joining people together, not giving distortion and misunderstanding. We have to say, 'Have you looked at this door to know the truth about Jesus?' "
Some Americans have peeked through Talebzadeh's door. He showed the movie to four audiences in the United States, and it was recently screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival. He said many people were open-minded and intrigued by the historical and religious questions it raised.
"The truth has a whole, different vibration to it," he said. "If you enhance it with artistry, you can create a discussion."
Not according to the website of the Worldwide Church of God in Fairfield, Calif.: "Attempts by the Iranians or anyone else who try to deny that Jesus Christ is the true messiah will ultimately fail. The Holy Bible confirms the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in numerous ways, and no amount of filmmaking or lecturing or rhetoric to the contrary can defeat that fact."
Nia-as-Jesus finished his orange. Talebzadeh, whose office was warm in the afternoon sun, kept talking about the film, about divinity, about how to capture truth.
He turned in his chair toward Jesus, and was still, after all these years, amazed at the likeness, the highlighted hair, eyes of fervor. He joked that he had been searching for his lead character for a long time when his assistant director spotted Nia on the street one day and said, "I found your Jesus."
Nia-as-Jesus liked this story, happenstance leading, as he sees it, to destiny.