The King (Su Re): Rotterdam Review

The King Film Still - H 2013
A tale worn smooth by two millennia of retellings regains some welcome cragginess in this uncompromisingly grim new version from the wilds of Sardinia.

Director Giovanni Columbu transplants Christ's Passion to the remote hills of his native Sardinia for a stripped-down production featuring a cast of local nonprofessionals.

Topically arriving on the international stage as controversy rages over the depiction of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, The King (Su Re) shows how and why a certain prominent individual was very publicly, very gruesomely and very protractedly tortured to death. His name? Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ.

A belated sophomore feature from multitasking Sardinian director/editor/producer/co-writer Giovanni Columbu, this radically bare-bones version of the Passion bowed at the Turin Film Festival in November and now pops up in competition in Rotterdam ahead of domestic distribution in March courtesy of one of Italy's more prominent nonbelievers, Nanni Moretti.

Likely to appeal to the country's atheists and art house denizens more than devout churchgoers, it puts a sufficiently exotic spin on crushingly familiar material to warrant at least consideration for niche distribution elsewhere. But this is forbiddingly austere stuff, along the lines of what might have happened if highbrow Catalan experimentalist Albert Serra had elected to remake Pier Paolo Pasolini's landmark 1964 The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

For all his originality and audacity, even Pasolini hewed very close to what have long been the standard artistic and cinematic depictions of Christ by casting the handsomely intense newcomer Enrique Irazoqui as his divine lead. Columbu, by contrast, foregrounds the squat, swarthy, bug-eyed Fiorenzo Mattu -- as the opening voice-over notes, "He didn't have the looks or beauty to charm." Indeed, Mattu's Christ recalls no previous representation of The Lord more strongly than that now shown in the disastrously "restored" Spanish fresco that sparked international ridicule last year.

Nor does Mattu exude the kind of charisma we might expect of an individual whose influence remains so strong more than two thousand years down the line. Columbu, 61, whose Archipelaghi (2001) made few waves, instead emphasizes the agonizing, sob-wracked sufferings of this hapless, defenseless individual, recipient of harshly barbaric treatment from his primitive society.

We see no miracles, no supernatural trappings, no resurrection, no divine signs apart from some heavy rumbles of thunder and a medium-sized earth-tremor -- an event which takes on added significance in the light of the fact that Sardinia is actually among the quietest areas of Italy in terms of seismic activity. 

Columbu's script, co-written with his brother Michele, consists of mainly short scenes taken from the four gospels, some of which diverge from or even contradict each other, but whose basic details are roughly similar. Last Supper; Garden of Gethsemane; arrest, trial and chastisement; crucifixion. For the record, the most notorious passage from the Book of Matthew -- in which Jewish priests exclaim, "Let his blood be on us and on our children" -- is repeated several times, albeit with the preceding caveat "If he is innocent." And, unlike in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, this "blood curse" is translated in the English subtitles (which tellingly refer to Christ as "he," "his" and "him" rather than the conventional capitalized forms).

And while we're far from the gory excesses of Gibson's version -- we actually don't see whips tear flesh, nails entering palms or the Spear of Longinus piercing the ribcage -- Columbu gains much from leaving the worst to the viewer's imagination. He also saves a bit of money, too, in a production of Spartan simplicity shot in the spectacularly bleak, rockily mountainous and permanently wind-blasted areas around his own native city Nuoro.

Nonprofessionals from the district fill out the cast, speaking the colorful regional dialect, and the performances from those with speaking parts are solidly convincing. Many extras have no more to do than stand around looking malevolently sinister in cowls, but the overall impact is suitably chilling both in terms of the mob mentality of the populace and the harsh elemental extremity of their surroundings as captured on crisp digital by the RED cameras of the four credited cinematographers.

That said, there's little sense of how these people get by on a day-to-day basis -- no sheep or goats are seen, no work appears to be done -- or of how Christ's message caught on among what originally was a tiny, persecuted sect. The Columbus' decision to structure their screenplay as a chronological jumble adds little, apart from a general sense of inescapable fate and "ordained" predestination, perhaps the only aspect of The King which lends itself to what might be termed an orthodox religious interpretation.

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Fiorenzo Mattu, Pietrina Menneas, Tonino Murgia, Paolo Pillonca
Production company: Luches Film
Director-producer-editor: Giovanni Columbu
Screenwriters: Giovanni Columbu, Michele Columbu, based on the four Gospels of the Bible
Directors of photography: Massimo Foletti, Uliano Lucas, Francisco Della Chiesa, Leone Orfeo
Production designer: Sandro Asara
Costume designers: Stefania Grilli, Elisabetta MontaldoSales agent: Sacher Film, Rome
No MPAA rating, 79 minutes