American director Jules Dassin — famous for his 40s and 50s film noir works Brute Force, Rififi, Night and the City, The Naked City — departs from his normal stomping ground with an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzaki’s 1948 novel The Greek Passion. Dassin left the US for France because of his Communist affiliations — hence, the film is in French (as are many of his famous works). This is one of Dassin’s “forgotten gems” and deserves a wider audience.
He Who Must Die (1957) takes place in Crete (filmed on location) during the Turkish occupation of the 1920s. Towns are burned and refugees stream across the country. The Cretan landscape and black and white cinematography is often stunning, the reinterpretation of the Passion emotionally engaging and inventive, and when the plot thickens vast undercurrents of dread and darkness marvelously commingle.
Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)
A small Cretan town is preparing for its annual passion play after receiving permission from its Turkish overlords. A council presided over by the local priest selects the townspeople to play the various religious characters, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Judas, the Apostles, etc. The local shepherd, plagued by an unfortunate stammer, is selected as Jesus and a kindly prostitute as Mary Magdalene.
The preparations are interrupted when a large contingent of destitute dispossessed villagers from a distant town destroyed by the Turks arrive seeking assistance. The local priest, who speaks for the town, and his advisers decide that harboring the refugees is absolutely impossible and conceive of nefarious ways to rile up the populace in order to kick out the refugees (including accusations that they’re carrying cholera and want to steal their land).
The Turkish overlord (in a role clearly resembling Pontius Pilate) and his singing boy servant watch the drama unfold and the inevitable conflict. The disposed are kicked out of the town but set up their own nearby. However, they lack basic necessities and many starve to death.
Soon, the group of villagers selected to be participants in the passion play reveal the characteristics of their assigned characters and attempt to assist the dispossessed…. I best not spoil the rest…
This is a beautiful and heartfelt film which deserves a wider audience. Thankfully, netflix has recently made it available to stream (no DVD available, yet).
The message is brutal: if Jesus were to return to Earth we’d crucify him again. Dassin beautifully (and convincingly — for the most part) constructs this cyclical interpretation of history with a delightful cast of characters, unexpected humor, and of course, the pervading darkness.
However, the work is not without faults. The pacing slumps in the last third (rescued by the devastating final sequence). More problematic is the overdone acting — especially the Turkish leader of the village who is effeminate, sips liquor, and acts like the typical villain. Thankfully Dassin only pursues this trope so far for true darkness and destruction ultimately emanates from within the community — the villagers are easily manipulated not only by the powers at hand (the Church, the wealthy notables, the Turks) but also by their own selfish desires.
Worthwhile not only for fans of Dassin but all cinephiles.