Director Luca Lucchesi’s documentary opens with two men, both African refugees in Italy, walking along the beach, discussing a paradoxical phenomenon of the town where they are temporary guests. “In this town there is a statue of a Black Jesus,” one says. “The funny thing is that the locals don’t like the Black people, but they love this Black Jesus.”
The town is Siculiana, on the Italian island of Sicily, and the refugees, several hundred of them, are staying in an old hotel, which has been converted into a centre for refugees from Ghana. Some of the townspeople are involved in angry demonstrations against the newcomers, insisting the immigrants are there to take jobs, that Sicily is experiencing a foreign invasion. The town itself is in decline, with an aging population, since most of the younger Italians are seeking better paid work in Germany and Northern European countries. But anyone who can, comes back home for the annual May 3 event, when the statue of Jesus, made of varnished oak, is carried through the streets and re-instated on the cross in the Sanctuary of the Sacred Cross, where it has been worshipped for centuries.
One of the refugees, 19-year-old Edward from Ghana, has an inspiration. He goes to the town priest, and appeals to him as a fellow Christian: What if some of the Black men from the refugee centre could help carry the dark wooden statue, through the streets, to remind the people of their common humanity? The priest agrees and promises to take it to the committee in charge of the procession.
Lucchesi, who shot the film over almost two years, hangs out with a band of fiercely devout grannies, school kids and a local progressive teacher at the refugee centre. He brings one of the Africans to an ask-me-anything session at a secondary school classroom, where the students dismiss their parents as old-fashioned and racist. At the teacher’s local barbershop though, the older villagers are far less receptive to his inclusive message.
One can easily imagine this story adapted into a feel-good commercial feature. The film’s handsome CinemaScope framing and graceful tracking shots capture Sicily in its ancient beauty. It also comes with the imprimatur of producer German filmmaker Wim Wenders, a friend of the director. (Lucchesi is married to Wenders’ niece, Hella, the film’s co-writer.)
In the climactic scene, Edward, along with his fellow refugees, Peter and Samuel, join the local celebrants, sweating and straining as they carry the statue through the streets, re-enacting Christ’s last walk to his crucifixion, carrying the cross and the burden of the sins of the world. The film leaves it open whether the symbolic gesture has had any lasting effect, though news that the refugee centre was closed in 2019 isn’t encouraging..
A Black Jesus premieres at Hot Docs on April 29, 10 a.m.