Saturday, December 08, 2012

"Thomas", last of the "Friends of Jesus", plays out a major question about individual faith and self-direction

There is a series of Italian (dubbed to English) television movies called “Close to Jesus” or “The Friends of Jesus” (“Gli amici di Gesu”), available on DVD from Barnholtz and Artisan Entertainment (now Lionsgate). The fourth film “Thomas” (“Tommaso”, played by Ricky Tagnazzi, was of particular interest to me.  The 2001 film is directed by  Raffaele Mertes and Elisbetta Marchetti, written by Gareth Jones.

Most people know, on the surface, the story of the “Doubting Thomas” in the Book of Acts.  In the film, Thomas, after the body of Jesus is taken from Golgotha, stays behind as other disciples leave, as he fears desecration of the body.  He plays hide and seek with Roman guards, who have imprisoned Joseph.  The Romans are concerned about the rumors of the Resurrection. When Thomas meets a legionary in the Roman baths, the Romans have arranged for him to be taken to a fake body in the catacombs (for money).  When Thomas says that the body is not the same (there is a shot of the chest)  a struggle ensue, in which Thomas says the guard’s life and is led to a soldier named Longinus (Matthias Herrmann), who sends Thomas back to his own brethren of faith.  In the climactic scene, the resurrected Jesus (Danny Quinn) appears and beckons Thomas to reassure himself that Jesus is real and is who he seems to be.  There’s an odd camera shot where Thomas grabs what looks like a plaster model of Jesus’s leg.

What’s interesting in this film is the psychological portrayal of Thomas.  About 45 or so but rather fit physically (you had to be fit to walk everywhere in a pre-techno society), he seems both charismatic and aloof, a bit of the ancient world’s idea of a geek, writer and verbal blogger.  He is often wandering in the desert alone, soliloquizing, exploring the world according to his own agenda.  He seems a bit like me.  He is a perfectionist.  He wants some sort of credible evidence that what he wants to believe is real. 

One can imagine a situation where one has certain feelings about someone, and then wonders whether he can keep those feelings intact if that person is challenged.  That has happened to me before, as in 1978.
Thomas sometimes gets mouthfuls from others, especially of his own Jewish faith.  For example, “Israel has too many prophets when we need warriors.”  Later, “ You should have been crucified instead of him.”  Really?  And this one: “You’re looking for something that does not exist.”

Thomas is a pretty effective gumshoe in his own world.  In some areas, like the baths, where men sit around in skivvies, it seems that Romans and Jews, and men of different economic classes, mix and mingle.  There is a touch of homoeroticism, but physical contact and closeness (Thomas gives the legionnaire a back massage) may have been more accepted in their society than it became in ours. 

The "Doubting Thomas" story reminds me of the "Rich Young Ruler" parable and paradox, about which I heard a major sermon in 1972.  The whole discussion had started in an encounter group, "search for meaning", and there had been a question, "What about the body?"   When Jesus is called "Good master" has retort is "don't pander me."

The film does present the early Christians living together as a collective society, a community of shared faith rather than individual ego and accomplishment. Mary Magdalene, a key connector in this world, is played by Maria Grazi Cucinotta.   

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