A Muslim Who Acted in Mel Gibson's "Passion"
How the Film Moved Abel Jafri
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PARIS, APRIL 27, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The only French actor in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" is Abel Jafri, a Muslim of Tuareg origin.
In this interview, the 38-year-old Jafri, who in the film plays the part of the leader of the Temple guards in charge of arresting Jesus, speaks about what he learned from the movie.
Q: How did Mel Gibson contact you to take part in this film?
Jafri: During a film festival in Geneva, a U.S. casting director called me on the phone to tell me that Mel Gibson wanted to meet me to ask me to take part in his next film.
I went to Rome for the audition, as Gibson wanted the casting of "The Passion" to be really international. Appreciated by film stars, he preferred actors from other realms, in particular from the theater, as is my case.
During my first meetings with the director, we spoke especially about the desert, as he is fascinated by my native region, in Algeria. I have a family of 11; he has seven children. This brought us closer.
Now we plan to go together to my father's village, the Alouef oasis, and, following the footsteps of Father Charles de Foucauld, to Tamanrasset and Assekrem. This man of God is becoming timely and, in fact, director Yves Boisset has contacted me to make a film on his life in the desert.
Q: The film was recorded in Aramaic and Latin. How did you prepare for it?
Jafri: After the distribution of roles, I returned to Rome to work on the phonetics in Aramaic, with specialists in this language.
We prepared for months, and then we had a great common rehearsal, with actors that came from all countries, to adjust ourselves to one another. Mel Gibson wanted us to be very authentic and spontaneous in our roles, able to improvise -- on occasion among 800 extras who represented the unbridled and vociferous mob.
Q: What thoughts has your role inspired in you?
Jafri: I was the leader of the Temple guards who led the group in charge of arresting Jesus to condemn him after Judas' betrayal. I spat on Jesus, I mistreated him.
What impressed me most was the physical and moral suffering of this innocent man. Like a hurricane, blind and senseless violence knocked him down.
Today, people continue to let themselves be carried away by hasty judgments, without reflection, without a conscience, manipulated by pressure groups that defend their personal interests.
The current problem is summarized in a question: Why so much hatred? Why is love not loved? In our modern developed societies, it would seem that reactions are the same as they were 2,000 years ago. The film's message brings us directly to the present.
Q: During the five months of filming, beginning in the autumn of 2002, how did you live this artistic experience?
Jafri: The filming was difficult; there were weather problems, but we were all immersed in Jesus' story in an extraordinary way, as witnesses of the event.
The film's violence is a mirror of the violence hidden in man's heart. All of us are, in a certain measure, accomplices of this wickedness, of this mystery of evil, and if we become conscious of it, it is never too late to turn around, to love.
Only the force of love can triumph over the absurd. We can be in solidarity in the good [and] decide that the light shines in the darkness through our daily actions.
Q: You are a Muslim. Who is Jesus for you?
Jafri: Jesus belongs to everyone; he is a model for all men; his message goes beyond the boundaries of beliefs.
The controversy over the film is a good sign, as it shows that Jesus continues to trouble us, as at the time he walked on the roads of Palestine. I am very happy to have contributed to give timeliness again to the call to universal fraternity.
During the filming, I was injured by the crowds, on my back and tibia. I received blows at the same time as the principal actor, Jim Caviezel, and we went to the infirmary together. I had bruises everywhere.
Now I feel closer, in greater solidarity with what the man Jesus suffered. It is a profound feeling, difficult to explain in words.
Q: What impressed you most during the filming?
Jafri: We were isolated from the world, focused on the story that brought us together, working 18 hours a day.
Mel Gibson often asked me to stay by his side; he gave me confidence. On Sundays he invited me to eat with him and his family; it was a privilege.
He had schooled his children during that year in Italy, at the American School. I was impressed by his person, his profound goodness, his respect for people.
He really puts his faith into practice. He is not a fundamentalist or a fanatic, as some seem to think. He is a being full of gentleness; bold, who lives his convictions without being intimidated by worldly considerations.
Q: In your opinion, why did Judas betray Jesus? What inspired that betrayal?
Jafri: Money and villainy always poison human life. Today, the power of easy money is sacrificing our planet and humanity. It is time to consider the breadth of the damage, and to work shoulder to shoulder to change this.
The tenderness of Jesus opens the way to a future. A resurrection is still possible if we collectively give proof of courage and care for others.
Q: Is there a phrase of the film, from your point of view, that summarizes Jesus' message?
Jafri: The violence of this film has meaning. It makes us reflect, as opposed to the mindless violence that passes on screens throughout the day.
How is it possible not to respond to the phrase pronounced by Jesus on the cross, when he says to God: "Forgive them"? In these words he offers us the key to happiness and peace. Everything is said in this forgiveness.
[Interview by Francois Vayne, director of Lourdes Magazine]