The Passion of the Christ

 The world is in for a sensational Lent in 2004. Yesterday saw the US opening of Mel Gibson's very personal movie tribute to Jesus: The Passion of the Christ.

The film is set for release in the United Kingdom and Ireland on March 26 - in time for Holy Week and Easter.

During early 2003, controversial discussions hit the headlines. How would Jesus be portrayed? How realistically could the sufferings of Jesus be presented? And how would Gibson handle the age-old question of the responsibility of the Jewish people for Jesus' death? The headlines quickly led to eager speculations, denials and debate. Most of this response, occurred before those putting forward their views had actually seen the movie.

Mel Gibson was initially very cautious in allowing commentators to see The Passion. At first prominent Catholic leaders like Archbishop John Foley, head of the Vatican's Council for Social Communications, and Cardinal Dario Castrillon watched a showreel consisting of ten minutes or so of selected scenes. Archbishop Foley, while acknowledging that he had not seen the whole film, was impressed. Cardinal Castrillon immediately issued a statement urging all priests to see it. This was followed by a statement from Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the office for dialogue between religions, in reply to some Jewish leaders' complaints, that the Vatican could not comment authoritatively on the movie until it had been seen in full.

By August 2003, Gibson had invited a number of religious leaders from different churches to view the cut that was ready. There was general approval. Some, however, found the scourging too graphic and some of the Calvary sequences very brutal. Most said they were impressed. But these were church people - not professional critics. Gibson's company, Icon, seemed reluctant to allow journalists early access to the film.

A mixture of intense popular interest in the movie with some shrewd marketing tactics has intensified the debate and discussion in recent weeks. One of the major questions that still concerns critics is the Jewish issue. Despite Gibson's reassurance that his movie is not anti-Semitic, the worries persist. One of the reasons for this is due to reports about Gibson's own religious stances and those of his father.

Gibson senior has spent years promoting very conservative views on moral doctrines as well as authority within the Catholic church. It is also alleged that he says the number of Jews killed in World War II has been exaggerated.

It is important to say that none of this is evident in The Passion. The text where those clamouring for Jesus' crucifixion cry, 'his blood be on us and on our children' (Matthew 27), is not in the movie nor is Caiaphas' statement in John 12 that it would be expedient for one man to die for the sake of the nation.

The general consensus of those who have seen the movie is that the Jewish issue is presented in a 'balanced' way. The Gospels, especially John, were written at a time of growing antagonism between Jewish authorities and the emerging Christian communities and reflect this polemic. With a 1900 years' history of hostilities and persecution, any presentation of the crucifixion needs a great deal of sensitivity and care. Gibson has become increasingly conscious of this need.

With a budget of $25,000,000 of Gibson's own money, The Passion will need large audiences to recoup its costs. With the hype consequent on the controversies, the movie is taking on the shape of an event. The response of the media, including some front page features, when Pope John Paul was quoted as saying that The Passion 'is as it was' (since denied by the Vatican) fed the increasing interest.

But, who will go to see The Passion? The ordinary cinemagoer might be motivated by curiosity but will find two hours of Jesus suffering and dying hard going. The movie buff will be interested to watch this development in Mel Gibson's career as a director. The serious viewer may want to see an interpretation of the death of one of the great figures of history. The bulk of the audience will be practising Christians. Most will not be disappointed.

Christians who have a very literal (even fundamentalist) approach to reading their scriptures will find the treatment straightforward and credible. Christians who have spent time in more nuanced and sophisticated study will appreciate the skill with which the screenplay has been written. They will admire the way material from each Gospel has been selected and judiciously connected with the others. They will be impressed by the brief flashbacks (including one of rather gentle and humorous tone in the carpenter's workshop in Nazareth) which illuminate the meaning of the suffering. Particularly skilful is the insertion of the main features of the Last Supper. as Jesus is nailed to the cross. As Jesus offers the bread, the camera focuses on his transfixed body. As he offers the wine, the camera focuses on his bloodspattered form. From a theologian's point of view, this is a successful combination of themes of celebration, communion and sacrifice.

Cinematically, the movie is striking, with Gibson finding ways to make the action realistic, even naturalistic. This is how these events could have actually been played out.

I recently saw another movie about Jesus - The Gospel of John, released in the US last autumn. I found the passion sequences seemed quite brief and more than a touch restrained. Gibson's film had become strongly embedded in my imagination and set a norm for how the passion might be dramatised.

One of the controversial aspects of the movie was the decision to have the dialogue spoken in Aramaic and Latin. This works well. There is no distraction in hearing anachronistic American or British voices. Rather the audience hears what conversation was like in those days. It is helpful to be reminded that Jesus spoke Aramaic and not English!

It is inevitable that there will be much more controversy, much more debate, but The Passion of the Christ will take its place as one of the more significant screen portraits of Jesus.

For further reading see: ICN 12 November 2003 - A Catholic analysis of Mel Gibson's 'The Passion'
LONDON - 27 February 2004 - 1,058 words

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