The Iranian biopic

Jesus, the Spirit of God

, which will have its North American premiere tonight, is a serious, sober, theologically sophisticated presentation of the Muslim view of Jesus.

Although its conclusions diverge in fundamental ways from Christian teachings, the film has the potential to open up important, perhaps even constructive, Muslim-Christian dialogue.

But, sadly, writer-director Mahmoud Talebzadeh, who backs the ultra-conservative government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sabotages any such dialogue by injecting his film with an unsophisticated, politically charged polemic against Judaism, which, ironically, parallels the attacks some Christians leveled during the Middle Ages.

Many Christians would be surprised to learn that Muslims revere Jesus and that the Quran celebrates him as one of God's great messengers. But unlike Christians, who believe he was divine, Muslims hold that, like Abraham and Moses before him and Muhammad after him, he was merely human.

Jesus dramatizes many of the same stories about Jesus' ministry recorded in the Gospels, from the Sermon on the Mount, to his various miracles, to his contentious encounter with the merchants and religious leaders at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Even as it alerts the viewer to an alternative - yet earnestly admiring - view of Jesus, the film mounts a steadily intensifying ideological attack on Jews. For instance, it asserts that the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem paid the Judean prefect Pontius Pilate a huge bribe in return for his pledge that he would have Jesus executed.

And, as in medieval Christian polemics, the film asserts that Jews were culpable for Jesus' death and that they remain cursed because of it.

It's a shame to see such a talented filmmaker content to wade through such an intellectual and moral sewer.

Jesus, the Spirit of God *1/2 (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Nader Talebzadeh. With Ahmad Soleimani-Nia, Fatali Oveysi, Ahmad Najafi.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Parent's Guide: Not rated (adult themes, violence, disturbing images)

Playing at: Ritz Five, today at 4:45 p.m. and Monday at 5 p.m. The Bridge: Cinema DeLux, Saturday at noon.


Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tderakhshani@phillynews.com.