Rather than go the usual Hollywood biblical epic route, this Good Friday I opted for an alternative "Communist" view of the tale of the Christ via 2 European films made by exiled American film-makers: Edward Dmytryk's British-made GIVE US THIS DAY aka Christ IN CONCRETE (1949) and the French film under review – both of which, incidentally, also share blacklisted screenwriter Ben Barzman. Naturally, neither of these movies is located in Roman-ruled Judea or features crucifixions and, in fact, they are allegorical in nature and modernized in setting. Celebrated Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis – on whose book "Christ Recrucified" Dassin's film was based – would die the same year HE WHO MUST DIE was released and is himself perhaps best-known for another controversial work on similar lines, "The Last Temptation Of Christ", that was filmed much later by fervently Catholic film-maker Martin Scorsese. Set in 1921 in a small Greek village under Turkish rule during Passion Week, the film deals with the moral dilemma caused by the arrival in town of a group of Greek fugitives led by their priest (Jean Servais) – the survivors of a nearby village that was burned to the ground by the Turks. The majority of the townspeople, headed by the fearsome local priest Grigoris (Fernand Ledoux) and the wealthy mayor (Gert Frobe), refuse them any help lest they be judged traitors by the Turks, but a handful are sympathetic to the fugitives' plight: Maurice Ronet (as Forbe's hesitant son), Melina Mercouri (as the popular local widow-whore) and Pierre Vanek (as a simple shepherd in Frobe's employ). HE WHO MUST DIE marked a departure for Dassin who, leaving behind his tried-and-tested noir territory in which he had excelled until then, goes straight for Art in this powerful but heavy-going drama. The villagers are deep in preparation for the annual Passion pageant on Good Friday (a tradition that is still highly popular in my neck of the woods – in fact, I had an uncle and a good friend of mine who both used to take part in local representations of this sort many years ago!) when the harassed band of countrymen pass through their town; needless to say, the resulting heated confrontations makes everybody forget all about the play but the Christ saga soon enacts itself in real-life in the person of the stuttering shepherd (who, unsurprisingly, had been the one chosen to portray Jesus in the first place). The reteaming of Servais and Carl Mohner (as a chief member of the fugitive group) – both from Dassin's legendary caper RIFIFI (1955) – could not have been more different, nor (the future Mrs. Dassin) Melina Mercouri's portrayal here – despite the surface similarities – of the proverbial "whore with a heart of gold" than that of her most famous role in Dassin's popular hit, NEVER ON Sunday (1960)! This unholy mélange of patriotism and sensuality – not to mention Communist solidarity and Christian hypocrisy – cannot fail to give rise to impressive sequences and performances (particularly a white-haired Frobe and the enigmatic 'Blond Christ' Vanek) along the way but also, at least, one major deficiency: the villagers' avowed fear of Turkish retaliation if they aid the fugitives – especially as displayed via the overstated performance of Ledoux as a vindictive Patriarch – rings false when set against the laid-back personality of the Turkish Agha (Gregoire Aslan), perennially clad in pyjamas, seemingly uninterested in anything that happens around him and perfectly happy (until the finale, that is) to let his Christian subjects fight it out amongst themselves! Likewise, the melodramatic tussles over Mercouri's favors, between the awkward, pacifist Vanek and the robust, violent Roger Hanin, seem intended to give the film an extra touch of Greek tragedy more than anything else. Nevertheless, I am grateful to have been provided with an opportunity to check out this elusive Dassin film, and also very glad that it was by way of such a (surprisingly) pristine widescreen copy.
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Greece, in the 1920's, is occupied by the Turks. The country is in turmoil with entire villages uprooted. The site of the movie is a Greek village that conducts a passion play each year. The leading citizens of the town, under the auspices of the Patriarch, choose those that will play the parts in the Passion. A stuttering shepherd is chosen to play Jesus. The town butcher (who wanted to be Jesus) is chosen as Judas. The town prostitute is chosen as Mary Magdalene. The rest of the disciples are also chosen. As the movie unfolds, the Passion Play becomes a reality. A group of villagers, uprooted by the war and impoverished, arrive at the village led by their priest. The wealthier citizens of the town want nothing with these people and manipulate a massacre. In the context of the 1920's each of the characters plays out their biblical role in actuality.
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