Saturday, November 24, 2007

DVD Review: St. Peter — starring Omar Sharif


Folks, this is yet another jewel by Italian Radio TV (RAI), a 2005 production about the life of St. Peter, starring Omar Sharif.

The good thing about this movie is that it portrays the origin and growth of the primitive Church in a manner that is credible and entertaining. The miraculous, when it occurs at all, is portrayed very soberly, matter-of-factly and prosaic. You will find no "faith healing" scenes or fiery preachers screaming hell and damnation, emotional repression, and the like. No, you will find a "band of brothers" led by a fisherman who learned to love first hand in the school of the Nazarene who once was dead and now, is alive.

St. Peter is ably portrayed by Omar Sharif, which I find a surprising choice because he's a Muslim. Sharif has had to suffer a bit for his choice of movie making. According to the Wikipedia, Sharif was born Michel Demitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt to Joseph Chalhoub, a timber merchant, and Claire (Saada), an Egyptian. The British news daily The Guardian reported back in 2005 "that a message on a web forum used in the past by al-Qaida had a link to a site carrying the threat. 'Omar Sharif has stated that he has embraced the crusader idolatry,' it said. 'He is a crusader who is offending Islam and Muslims and receiving applause from the Italian people. I give you this advice, brothers, you must kill him.' Other messages posted to the site had protested at the appeal. The Guardian's article also highlighted Sharif's current "unbeliever" credentials.

Nevertheless, art is art and Sharif is an artist. His portrayal of St. Peter was of one of a strong, yet meek man. We don't get the sense of choleric angst we perceive in other portrayals of the Fisherman, such as the one portrayed by James Farentino in the 1977 miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, Sharif plays St. Peter as a man in search of love, true Christ-like love who then finds himself in the awesome and quite undeserved position of having to confer, define, and defend that love for thousands of others.

In a book I read awhile back, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God by Jack Miles, I found an interesting thought. If a Person was born in this world and has nothing else in his calendar but one single appointment, and has an urgent message to share and only two years to do it, who will he choose to carry his message? Well, the answer is, anybody. Anybody would do, no matter how rustic his or her background or how culture. Anyone would do and that's what he did. He chose nobodies. These nobodies went ahead and changed the world by the power of their example and their speech, no swords, no invasions, no machinations with the high and mighty, no jihads, and no forced conversions. It was just themselves, the power of their idea, and the promise by the One that he "will be with them until the end of the world" and that's forever. St. Peter successfully captures the essence of the kerygma and its power to convince, change minds and convert.

Directed by Giulio Base, the movie has several scenic and signature moments. One of my favorites is when Peter, guided by Paul, meets the Christians in Antioch. He is taken to a second story hallway that opens like a balcony into an inner courtyard. Down in the courtyard you see the Christians of Antioch acclaiming him. Sharif affects a John Paul the Great gesture and raises his two hands slightly in front of him to greet them back as he smiles to them. The moment looks completely Papal and explains the spiritual attraction Catholics feel for the Bishop of Rome not necessarily because who he is personally, rather, because he is Peter. The scenes of Peter's martyrdom look like the paintings one might find in an old family Bible or in a Missal. They were beautifully done. The transition to a surprising finale was exquisite, going a long way to explain in pictures what we Catholic Christians believe and why regarding the person of St. Peter.

I just have one less-than-good thing to say about this movie and that is at times it becomes formulaic. The movie contains various subplots, one of them the love story between the good-hearted yet conflicted pagan man and the devoted, yet strong Christian woman. I saw this same subplot in another movie from these series I reviewed before, The Apocalypse – Starring Richard Harris. I suppose that I should expect these subplots but that doesn't mean I should like them. Nevertheless, these don't subtract anything from the movie's main premise.

St. Peter is worth your time and money. It is ideal for family viewing or watch with friends at home or at church. It can also become a good catechetical tool about the power and the meaning of Christian Love, a central theme in Pope Benedict's first encyclical. It can also be a great apologetic proof against those who thing impossible or highly unlikely that St. Peter every made it to Rome, much less becoming what we Catholics said he became: the first in a long line of very human men who are witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ.

Thank God for good cinema, thank God for St. Peter.