ROME, DEC. 19, 2000 (
Alessandro D´Alatri, a film director who has brought the early life of Jesus to the screen, has more than a passing interest in the man from Nazareth.

"I learned about Jesus as a child," D´Alatri said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire. "Then I lost him on the road, but in the end I have rediscovered him."

Born in Rome in 1955, D´Alatri is the director of the film "The Garden of Eden," which is centered on Jesus´ life before he was 30. The film was a success at the Venice Film Festival last year.

"I was in Jerusalem to present my film ´Without Skin,´" he recalled. "When I entered the Holy Sepulcher Basilica I couldn´t avoid asking myself questions, which sooner or later every Catholic must ask. Who is Jesus, really? What can I transmit about him to my two little daughters?

"I realized I didn´t know much, that my knowledge was reduced to a few elementary notions, baptism, Communion, Christmas. I felt angry that no one had ever taught me anything about Jesus. When I returned to Rome I took the Bible and began to read it from cover to cover: from the Old Testament to the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles. I read, underlined and wrote dozens and dozens of notes."

--Q: What did you discover in the end from this difficult search?

--D´Alatri: I am very envious of those who say they have an unbreakable faith, because for me, even to find Jesus, was a complex journey. Let´s say that from being a distracted Catholic I am now a less-distracted one. Since then, I have not stopped reading, although, I repeat, I am not a theologian; I am a film director.

--Q: What does it mean for a film director to believe in Jesus?

--D´Alatri: To make spirituality part of the works he produces.

--Q: And, practically speaking?

--D´Alatri: To introduce into my films those values that have their origin in God himself.

--Q: Is it possible to do this?

--D´Alatri: It is not impossible, because deep down it is what people seek and want. In being present in different cities for the screening of my film on Jesus, I had the opportunity to get to know a reality that had escaped me completely: the parishes, which are fundamental realities in their neighborhoods.

There, in the parishes, in the diocesan halls, I met fantastic people who still write to me today: "Watching your film made me want to reread the Gospel, to know more about Jesus." What do I care if the film was not a box office success? Can a society just base itself on the logic of the profit of numbers?

--Q: Yet, you have said that today no one cares about Jesus.

--D´Alatri: It´s true. I did say it, although later, when I began to read the Bible and Gospels, I also had proof to the contrary. Knowing what I was studying, many friends invited me to dinner so that I would tell them about myself. They wanted to know what had happened to me. They were people who were more distracted than I, yet Jesus interested them; they were fascinated.

However, I then thought that if there was this much interest, we should try to tell the story. The mere exercise of "going into" the Gospel gives me enormous strength: not [just] to read it and put it in the library, but to read it and close my eyes, and reflect on what it is saying to me at this moment. I have studied Jesus through St. Paul. I did not know him [Paul] at all; in fact, I rather disliked him. Instead now ...

--Q: Do you have a favorite Gospel parable?

--D´Alatri: I like them all. I think that, after 2,000 years, they are still timeless. And yet, who reads them daily? My wife is German, of Protestant stock. Every year we go to her parents home in Germany for Christmas: as happens in all German families, on Christmas Eve my father-in-law selects a passage from the Gospel and reads it to all the gathered members of the family. This doesn´t happen among us; Christmas is a consumer event.

--Q: We mustn´t generalize. The Gospel is also read in many Catholic families, and thanksgiving is prayed to the Eternal Father before dinner. Do you pray?

--D´Alatri: Never, if one thinks of prayer in the "classic" sense; often, if one thinks of very imaginative prayer. While filming "The Garden of Eden," I felt Jesus very close to me, I felt his person. When I understood this, I felt the need to discover his "before."

--Q: What do you mean?

--D´Alatri: I refer to Moses, for example. He is the figure in the Bible that I love the most, because of his courage. He was imperfect, a poor illiterate who -- how many know this? -- stuttered. And yet, he succeeded in saving a people.

Today we are almost afraid of praying. Have you ever watched the Muslims? Many of the extras and technicians of the film were Muslims. Every now and then they would take their prayer mat and go off on their own to talk with God, without that shame or embarrassment we have.

--Q: We cannot generalize about this either. There are people who spend their life in prayer, without shame, but rather with much joy. However, let go to the real question: "And you, who do you say that I am?"

--D´Alatri: In his greatness, Jesus answered the question with another question: You yourselves try to say who I am, but say it to yourselves, not to me. We have a great gift, which the other religions don´t have, and it is the possibility of speaking familiarly with God. I am referring, for example, to confession. I am working on a film entitled "Absolution," but I would rather not speak now, it is still too early.