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Gospel films stick strictly to the text

12 December 2014

By Francis Martin

Lumo Project

Focused: (above and below) scenes from the Lumo filming in Morocco, including the calming of the storm, featuring Selva Rasalingamas Jesus

Focused: (above and below) scenes from the Lumo filming in Morocco, including the calming of the storm, featuring Selva Rasalingamas Jesus

A $7-MILLION project to produce and distribute the four Gospels in film was launched in London yesterday.

The Lumo Project strives for authenticity and seeks to "transform the way we discover, study, and engage with the life of Jesus."

It consists of four feature-length films, one for each of the Gospels. The Gospel of John, the first film to be released, has been available in the United States on the website Netflix since the start of December, and has garnered positive reviews for its attention to period detail.

The films were shot in the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate, which also hosted the production teams for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Gladiator (2000). The Gospel of John will première on television in the UK around Easter 2015.

Instead of dialogue, each film has a narration consisting of the unabridged text of the Gospel. The director David Batty said this week that he saw "the word as the prime mover" of the project. As words and images are independent, the film can be reproduced with different narrations.

There are already seven, including the King James Version, New International Version and the Spanish Reina-Valera 1960. The narrators for the English-language versions include Sir Derek Jacobi and Richard E. Grant.

Versions in German, French, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages are set to be released next year. The ambition of Hannah Leader, the producer of the project, stretches further: "I want to see it in 1000 languages or translations!"

Professor Edward Adams, author of Parallel Lives of Jesus: Four Gospels, One Story has written that "no other Jesus production so successfully captures the story of Jesus in its fourfold form". In an email exchange he reiterated that "this is an attempt to bring to screen within one unified filmic project each of the four Gospels as distinct narratives."

Mr Batty described the project as "one story seen from four different angles". Filming took 99 days, and the footage for all four films was gathered together. The films are only made distinct in the cutting room, rather like four different garments fashioned from the same piece of cloth. This process allowed for differences in the Gospel accounts to be portrayed on-screen.

The production team attempted to assemble a cast with physical characteristics as close as possible to those of the figures they portrayed. The producers hoped to avoid the kind of criticism attracted by Ridley Scott's Biblically-inspired blockbuster 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' which stars white actors as Moses and Pharaoh.

The Gospel films were cast almost exclusively in Morocco, and feature many of the country's best known actors. Jesus is portrayed by Selva Rasalingam, an actor with Tamil heritage who trained at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Ray Bruce, the consultant and associate producer, said that the multilingual case, with limited shared language, had had to focus intently on each other in order to play the scenes. Mr Bruce, an RE teacher turned film producer, claimed that this created a palpable on-screen "chemistry" between the figure of Jesus and the other characters. Mr Rasalingam described the role as an "exciting challenge".

He actively avoided watching any previous dramatic depictions of Christ, in an attempt to ensure that the primary inspiration remained the text of the Gospels.

The producer Heather Leader, who has worked on Gosford Park and Edge of Love, is a Sunday School as well as a feature-film professional. Her inspiration for The Lumo Project was education. "I wanted to show my Sunday School children brilliant filmed content on a Sunday that engaged them with the Bible and I couldn't find anything suitable or good - so I thought I'd make it myself."

Clips from the films have been used by the website TrueTube, a resource used by schools with content covering citizenship and religious education. TrueTube invited school children to write commentaries for the silent clips, and the best were invited into the studios to narrate them, with the subsequent videos featured on the website. By presenting the unabridged text from the Bible, the producers of The Lumo Project hope that is will be used as an alternative way to experience scripture.

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