An Iranian director says the movie he has produced based on Islamic understanding of the life of Jesus is an Islamic answer to Western productions such as Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," which he praised as admirable but quite simply "wrong."
Unlike in "The Passion," the Jesus in Nader Talebzadeh's "Jesus, the Spirit of God" does not face crucifixion, death and resurrection, but is saved by God and taken up directly to Heaven.
"Gibson's film is a very good film. I mean that it is a well-crafted movie but the story is wrong – it was not like that," he told Agence-France Press (AFP), referring to two key differences between Islam and Christianity. In Islam, Jesus is regarded as a prophet and not the son of God. Muslims also do not believe that he was crucified.
"Jesus, the Spirit of God," was funded by Iran's state broadcaster and had a low-key reception in the country, playing in front of moderate audiences in five Tehran cinemas during the recent holy month of Ramadan.
Though it has faded off the billboards, the production is far from dead, as it will this year be recycled in a major 20-episode spin-off to be broadcasted over state-run national television.
Talebzadeh insists that the film aims to bridge differences between Christianity and Islam despite the stark divergence from Christian doctrine about Christ's final hours on earth.
"It is fascinating for Christians to know that Islam gives such devotion to and has so much knowledge about Jesus," the director told AFP.
"By making this film I wanted to make a bridge between Christianity and Islam, to open the door for dialogue since there is much common ground between Islam and Christianity," he said.
The director is also keen to emphasize the links between Jesus and one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam, the Imam Mahdi, who is said to have disappeared 12 centuries ago but whose "return" to earth has been a key tenet of the presidency of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Much of "Jesus, the Spirit of God," which won an award at the 2007 Religion Today Film Festival in Italy, follows the traditional tale of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament books of Gospel – a narrative reproduced in the Koran and accepted by Muslims.
But in Talebzadeh's movie, God saves Jesus from crucifixion and takes him straight to heaven.
"It is frankly said in the Koran that the person who was crucified was not Jesus" but Judas, one of the 12 Apostles and the one the Bible holds betrayed Jesus to the Romans, Talebzadeh said. In his film, it is Judas who is crucified.
Islam regards Jesus as one of five great prophets – others being Noah, Moses and Abraham – sent to earth to announce the coming of Mohammed, the final prophet who spread the religion of Islam. It often describes Jesus' followers as "people of the book".
Shiite Muslims, who form the majority in Iran, believe Jesus will accompany the Imam Mahdi when he reappears in a future apocalypse to save the world.
And Talebzadeh said the TV version of his film will further explore the links between Jesus and the Mahdi – whose return Ahmadinejad has said his government, which came to power in 2005, is working to hasten.
Shiites believe the Mahdi's reappearance will usher in a new era of peace and harmony.
"We Muslims pray for the 'Return' [of Imam Mahdi] and Jesus is part of the return and the end of time," Talebzadeh said.
"Should we, as artists, stand idle until that time? Don't we have to make an effort?" he asked.