I Am With You -- Film Review

A novel take on Christ’s childhood gets buried under an amateurish story and direction.

ROME – Behind every great man, they say, there’s a great woman. Jesus is no exception in Guido Chiesa’s I Am With You (subtitled “The Story of the Girl Who Changed the World”), whose historical and artistic sloppiness nullify a novel and important idea at its core.

The director proffers that love and freedom are not simply divine gifts, not even in the Son of God, but are taught by one human being to another. While Jesus’ adult life has been examined to no end, it is his upbringing, in particular his relationship with his mother, that holds the key to what he would later become.

Independent filmmaker Chiesa is already being lauded in Italy for his courageous new version of Christ’s life. This is not surprising in a religiously conservative country where even Jesus’ being Jewish is an oft-ignored fact. Controversy could help spark interest in domestic art-house audiences but I Am With You, which looks and feels like one of those 1960s wannabe epics caught on TV, is too technically slapdash to travel far.

Shot in Tunisia, the film’s problems lie in earnest but poorly directed performances from the predominantly non-professional cast (speaking the local Tunisian dialect, sprinkled with French here and there) and an incoherent story full of gaping holes. If the film’s main language is modern, why then must Herod (Carlo Cecchi) and the Wise Men speak ancient Greek? And what is a grown Salome doing at Herod’s feet if John the Baptist has just been born? Under the guise of artistic license, the film shrugs off too many inconsistencies.

Chiesa’s Mary (played as an adolescent by the radiant Nadia Khlifi) is a proto-feminist, even as a young girl as she questions and rebels against authority. The film begins just before she is wedded to Joseph (Mustapha Benstiti), a henpecked man unable to stand up to the strong and independent girl. In fact, it takes only minutes for Mary and her mother to convince him that Mary’s strange pregnancy is just “one of those things that happen.”  One of history’s biggest miracles – or myths, depending on your beliefs – is reduced to Mary milking a sheep when suddenly her eyebrows raise and the pail of milk spills over.

The director continues down this path, along which a cohesive dramatic whole is sacrificed to over-dramatized details against a relentless score of Arabic and electric guitar music that flares up in every other scene. The story weaves in other historical figures and events, including Elizabeth (Fadila Belkebla), Zachariah (Djemel Barek), the birth of John the Baptist and the Massacre of the Innocents, which is set a year after Jesus’ birth in a truly amateurish sequence.

The filmmakers do depict the strong bond between Mary and Jesus, age one (and cute as a button), and later at 13, already a pacifist asking too many inconvenient questions about the contradictions he sees around him. But these are only fleeting moments in what should be the very core of the story.

Instead, too much time is spent on Mary’s objections to having Jesus circumcised, even hinting he wasn’t. Or on Herod’s half dozen Wise Men (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Denis Lavant, among others), who while seeking out the next King of the Jews literally stand around stroking their chins, nodding and grumbling solemnly until they decide that perhaps the true “chosen progeny” is simply a mother’s faith in her child.

I Am With You comes out in Italy on November 19 through Bolero Film.

Production companies: Magda Film, Colorado Film, RAI Cinema
Sales: RAI Trade
Cast: Nadia Khlifi, Rabeb Srairi, Mustapha Benstiti, Fadila Belkebla, Djemel Barek, Mohamed Idoudi, Carlo Cecchi, Giorgio Colangeli, Denis Lavant
Director: Guido Chiesa
Screenwriters: Nicoletta Micheli, Guido Chiesa, Filippo Kalomenidis
Producers: Silvia Innocenzi, Giovanni Saulini, Maurizio Totti
Director of photography: Gherardo Gossi
Production designer: Marta Maffucci
Music: Nicola Tescari
Costume designer: Valentina Taviani
Editors: Luca Gasparini, Alberto Masi
No rating, 102 minutes