He Who Must Die
At the Brattle
He Who Must Die begins innocently, even happily. It is a day of triumph for a small Greek community. Their local oppressor, the Turkish Agha, has benevolently granted his Christian subjects permission to engage in their religion; he has allowed them to stage their passion play. But he, in his infidelity, and the town, in its belief, do not realize that more than a church festival is at stake. Able to cope with the reality of Turkish conquest, they are not really able to cope with belief.
The emphasis of He Who Must Die is on the "Must": the inevitable fate of believing. As members of the excited village are singled out to play the Passion, they alone grasp the responsibility of their roles. Judas draws back and cries out against his fate. What the newly chosen disciple John can not yet articulate is already implicit: another Christ is to be crucified. Belief, believed in, must die.
Director Jules Dassin relentlessly pursues this point. He has artfully brought to the screen Nikos Kazantzakis's novel of the triple meeting of the Church, the Turks and belief. Each of these elements is made to complement the others. The Agha is not portrayed as a shallow reproduction of Pilate, but as a ruler involved in protecting his 1921 interests. The disciples' reluctance to follow is more than biblical, it is equally motivated by their fear of leaving their wives and their pubs.
Dassin has capitalized on the Motion Picture's potential for reality in making a potentially abstract story tragically concrete. Action, not dialogue, implements the drama. His players square off against each other visually, not verbally. In place of articulating their beliefs, the prostitute Mary Magdalen stops strutting and the betrothed disciple, John, lets loose his fiancee's hand.
Much of the realistic force of the film is derived from the story's phsical setting. Dassin has drawn on the Greek town and its people, utilizing the inherent despair of Greek folk-songs to express the despair of the characters, the material poverty of the citizens to underline their poverty of hope. Dassin has also exploited the aged and hardened faces of his Greek extras by using their expresisons to punctuate his dialogue.
Jacques Natleau wisely chooses to use his camera as an omniscient narrator. Rather than expressing the attitude of one character, Natleau impartially examines all motivations, significantly lending the film ambiguity. In siding with neither the Christ nor the Pilate, he leaves the audience with the task of choosing the hero, if there is one.
But, if the audience is somewhat confused as to where worthiness lies within the film, it is not confused as to the worth of the film. Dassin has made a powerful movie of a powerful novel. Intellectually and emotionally compelling, the movie is a magnificent relief from aimless entertainment. It is one of the few recent movies that can qualify as art.