More recently, however, filmmakers have been looking for alternatives to the stereotype, and you can see this process at work already in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004). For all the controversy stirred up by that film, Gibson wanted it to be as “historically accurate” as possible, and to that end, he not only had the actors speak all their dialogue in Latin and Aramaic, he also had actor James Caviezel made up to look more Semitic, even going so far as to turn Caviezel’s blue eyes brown using digital effects.
Then came “The Nativity Story” (2006), directed by Catherine Hardwicke, which went out of its way to cast actors who either came from the Middle East or could at least pass for characters who did. The Virgin Mary was played by Maori Keisha Castle-Hughes and Joseph was played by Oscar Isaac, an American actor of Cuban and Guatemalan descent; but many of their relatives and neighbours—including Mary’s parents and her cousin Elizabeth—were played by Palestinians and Iranians, and the angel Gabriel was played by Alexander Siddig, a British actor of Sudanese descent on his father’s side.
More recently, the Lumo Project, which is developing word-for-word adaptations of all four gospels—the first one, “The Gospel of John,” premiered on Netflix last year—cast Selva Rasalingam, who is part Tamil, as Jesus. And rumour has it that Cliff Curtis, the Maori actor who played Castle-Hughes’ father in “Whale Rider,” may be playing Jesus himself in “Clavius,” an upcoming film about a Roman centurion who investigates reports of the resurrection. (Rasalingam has a part in that film, too, as one of the apostles named James.)