A Black Jesus, directed by Luca Lucchesi and produced by Wim Wenders, poses a poignant and highly pertinent question. How can the residents of a Sicilian village worship a black Jesus but disregard the refugees who pray in the same church?
After his father died suddenly in 2017, director Luca Lucchesi returned to his family village in Sicily. When he arrived he could sense a different atmosphere within the place. With the arrival of refugees, and the construction of a centre to house them, came an associated sense of mistrust and fear of ‘the other’ on the part of the village’s original inhabitants.
Matters come to a head when the Ghanaian Edward decides he would like to carry the statue of the Black Jesus through the streets during the May 3 festival. The community is divided, and many are forced to question their senses both of identity and guilt.
The seeds of the film, which is presented June 23 and 25 at the German Producers Present forum at Cannes Marché, were planted when director Lucchesi went into the local church to say a prayer for his deceased father. He thought he was alone but then he saw sandals left inside the front door of the church. When he looked towards the statue of the black Jesus he saw five refugees praying fervently on their knees in front of it.
“At that point I thought I should try and get the sense of this town, and try and understand how a community can, in the real sense of the word, pray to a black Jesus but not feel a sense of empathy for people who look like that,” the director comments.
A second incident (that which determined the key line of narrative in the film) occurred on May 3 2018, during the annual procession through the streets, which Lucchesi was observing through his film lens.
“When they carry this giant statue, it is a really emotional moment for the people of the town, and at a certain point during the shooting I met three or four guys from Ghana who were searching for somebody who could speak English.”
Among them was Edward who was enraptured by the spectacle of the procession. “I could see he was developing a real idea, I could see it in his eyes, he was looking at this black Jesus and constantly saying to me, “is it true that in Europe Jesus is black. How can this be?” And then he decided that the following year he would also carry the statue.
The film follows Edward over this period, and also chronicles the attempts on the part of some of the townsfolk to have the refugee centre closed down. The director further points out that in his film “there are no bad and good guys. At the end it’s about being left at the bottom of the political pile when you are poor.”
The film is very close to completion, Lucchesi stresses, a mere “press of a button” away from the production of a DCP. At Cannes Marché, production company Road Movies is looking to garner festival interest and to attract world sales representation. The German distributor (for possible release in late Autumn) is FilmWelt. The production team is also eyeing up prominent Autumn festivals.
Lucchesi explains the influence and input of producer Wim Wenders.
“I think there are many things that without him I could not have done,” he says. “I have known him for 10 years, assisting him as First AD on many of his projects. He was my personal film school.”
The director wanted to use a camera person, but Wenders persuaded him to both shoot and direct the film. “He knows where I come from and what I love to do, to film, but I was scared. But he pushed me and said that I must. And I thank God that he said that, because it really helped a lot, in getting close to the characters and focussing on the visual aspects of the story at the same time.”
Wenders also gave up a lot of time to check on the dailies, as well as offering much informed advice during the edit, Lucchesi adds, to pare away at the flab and excess and to emphasise how the situation in the film is like Europe in a nutshell (or in “a drop” as the director puts it).
“We had a different version of course [at first], but he [Wenders] was always suggesting and pushing to make this film universal. At the beginning it was full of references to Italian politics and day to day news. That is still there – a lot of those political aspects – but he always said why don’t you just trust the story of these people, as a story?
“He said that in the film you get the feeling that you have seen something happen, but it could be today or a 100 years ago, and that this gives the film a universal fairy-tale aspect.”