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World Catholic Association
for Communication Analyzes "The Passion"
Mel Gibson's Film Within the Context of Other Movies
ROME, FEB. 22, 2004 (Zenit.org).-
Here is a statement sent today by Signis, the World Catholic
Association for Communication, on "The Passion of the
Christ," directed by Mel Gibson. The movie opens this week. The
text was slightly adapted here.
* * *
"The Passion of the Christ" is a considerable cinematic
As regards the Jewish-Christian issues and the explicit language about
the Jews in the Gospels, especially that of St. John, it is important
to realize that the more formal, "official" antagonism
between Christians and Jews emerged in the early decades of the second
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John emerged from Jewish communities.
Luke's Gospel draws strongly on the Jewish scriptures interweaving
biblical references and motifs throughout the text. The clash between
Jesus and the religious leaders of his time was a clash within
Judaism, a religious controversy about the Messiah (of which there
were a number in this period) and Jesus' claims. Disciples who became
Christians accepted his claims. Many religious leaders amongst the
priests and the Pharisees did not.
There were other converts, like Paul, who was proud of his Jewish
heritage and who took a strong stance about disciples of Jesus not
being bound by details of Jewish law. It has been difficult, given the
centuries of antagonism and the experience of repression and
persecution of Jews by Christian, and Catholic, communities to enter
into the context of Jesus' time and the mentality of the period.
The long traditions of Christians accusing Jews of being
"Christ-killers" also played their part in the debate. While
the Catholic Church apologized for the long persecutions and the
frequent anti-Semitism of the past in a Second Vatican Council
document (1965) and Pope John Paul II visited the Wailing Wall in 2000
and inserted his own prayer in a crevice, questions about Jesus' death
as being part of God's plan and how the Jewish religious leaders of
the time and the Romans, with Pontius Pilate, fitted into this plan,
continue to be raised.
The Passion draws its narrative from each of the four Gospels, for
instance, the quake and the rending of the temple, from Matthew; the
fleeing young man, from Mark; the women of Jerusalem (here, Veronica
and her daughter), from Luke; the Pilate sequences on truth, from
This linking of incidents in one narrative is the way in which the
Gospel stories were remembered and written down. There is some
material drawn from the later legendary stories and apocryphal gospels
(Veronica and her veil; Desmes the "bad" thief).
One of the difficulties that films of the life of Jesus encounter,
especially from scholars and theologians who are not versed in the
techniques and conventions of cinematic storytelling, is that they
sometimes tend to be critiqued and judged as if they were actual
Gospels. They are found wanting at this level and dismissed or
condemned. This is a danger for "The Passion." It needs to
be reiterated that this is a film and that the screenplay is a
"version" of the Gospel stories with no claim to be a
This use of the four Gospels means that there are different
perspectives on the Jews of the time in each Gospel.
Matthew's Gospel presupposes detailed knowledge of the Jewish
scriptures and sees Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. Hence the
more "apocalyptic" scenes at his death.
Mark and Luke look on from the outside, Luke writing for readers
familiar with Greek and Roman ways of storytelling.
John's Gospel from the end of the first century echoes the roots of
Christianity in Judaism but acknowledges the growing rift.
The screenplay is able to combine Gospel incidents into a coherent
narrative of the passion with selected flashbacks to Jesus' infancy
and life at Nazareth (his fall as a child, his making a table in the
carpenter's shop, his relationship with his mother and his playful
sprinkling her with water as he washes his hands) which are inventions
in the spirit of the Gospels, to Mary Magdalene's past where she is
combined with the woman taken in adultery of John 8, to Peter and his
protests of loyalty, to the Last Supper.
There is a flashback to the palm welcome of Jesus to Jerusalem during
the heckling of the crowd on the way to Calvary. There is dramatic
development of characters like Pilate and his wife, Simon of Cyrene,
the centurion, the good thief and the thief who reviles Jesus (with
retribution seen in the form of a vicious crow attacking him).
Of interest is the portrait of the Satan, the Tempter, who appears
early as an androgynous character, visual suggestions of female but
male voice, growing more obviously feminine as the film progresses and
finally appearing at the crucifixion (with a visual technique
reminiscent of William Wallace seeing his loved one at his execution)
carrying a child. Once again, this is imaginative license in
interpreting Jesus' being tempted and tested.
As with most Jesus' films, much attention is given to Judas. His
motivations are not made explicit in the film. It relies on audience
knowledge of Judas. The film portrays his action in Gethsemane and
subsequent dismay and return of his thirty pieces of silver. It
introduces a theme of children meeting Judas and taunting him as he
goes to his death.
The principal theological issues that concern viewers of Jesus-films
are: 1) The humanity and divinity of Jesus, 2) The resurrection of
The humanity and divinity of Jesus
"The Passion of the Christ" generally follows the approach
to the person of Jesus used by the synoptic Gospels, a "low"
Christology, a focus first on the humanity of Jesus and moving towards
an awareness of his divinity.
When the film uses John as a source, it reflects that Gospel's
"high" Christology, the presupposition in the narrative that
Jesus is divine and expresses this divinity in word and action. The
synoptic approach is seen in the flashbacks of incidents before the
passion as well as in the main events of the passion, the agony in
Gethsemane, the treatment of Jesus by the Sanhedrin and Herod, the
scourging and crowning with thorns, the way of the cross and the
The Johannine approach is found in Jesus' declaration of his being the
Son of Man at his trial (which is also in the synoptics) and the
discussions with Pilate about truth and about his kingdom.
This means that, theologically, the film presents the perennial
teaching that Jesus, in his person, was both human and divine in
The humanity of Jesus is often presented in a striking manner: Jesus
working in Nazareth, the experience of deep human pain in his agony,
scourging, falling on the way to Calvary, the nailing and his
experience on the cross. It is there in his dignity at his trial, his
composure with Pilate and Herod.
The film also highlights Jesus' human anguish of soul and sense of
abandonment in his agony and on the cross, along with his profound
surrender to the Father.
While the Jesus of cinema is usually slight and slender in build, Jim
Caviezel is a big and strong man, with some girth, a credible
carpenter and a solid man. This makes the film's Jesus more real than
Some commentators criticize a film that focuses on the passion for its
meager treatment of Jesus' resurrection. (This was a criticism in the
1960s and 1970s of "Jesus Christ Superstar.") Theologically,
the passion makes sense only in the light of the resurrection.
While Mel Gibson's film wants to immerse its audience in the
experience of the passion, the final sequence has the stone rolled
over the tomb. The stone is rolled away, the cloths wound around
Jesus' body are seen collapsing and the camera tracks to Jesus in
profile, sitting in the tomb as a prelude to his risen life. These are
the images with which the audience leaves the theatre. The
resurrection, presented briefly, is still the climax of the passion.
There are flashbacks to the Last Supper during the passion, especially
to Peter protesting that he would not deny Jesus, and to Jesus washing
the disciples' feet.
One of the major theological strengths of the film is the insertion of
the Eucharistic scenes of the Last Supper during the nailing and the
lifting up of Jesus on the cross. As Jesus offers the bread as his
body, we see the body that is painfully broken and given for us. As he
offers the wine as his blood, we are only too conscious of the
bloodletting, blood poured out for us. Jesus tells his disciples that
there is no greater love than laying down one's life for friends --
and we see it in its fullness. He tells them to celebrate the
Eucharist so that his passion and death will be present to them.
In this way, the screenplay highlights both aspects of the Eucharist,
the celebration of the meal, the communion and the sacrifice of Jesus.
Mary has a strong presence in "The Passion." She appears as
a woman in her 40s, striking rather than beautiful. She appears in two
flashbacks. Her demeanor is serious. She says very little. With Mary
Magdalene and John, she follows the passion and the way of the cross
without any of the histrionics that characterize a number of portraits
of Mary, especially Pasolini's mother in "The Gospel According to
At one stage, she wipes the blood of Jesus on the praetorium floor
after his scourging. She kisses his bloody nailed feet. The bond
between mother and son is suggested several times by significant eye
contact rather than words. The request for John to take care of Mary
is included. After Jesus is taken down from the cross, she holds him
in a Pietà tableau.
Most audiences should be satisfied with the portrayal of Mary. Those
who find some of the cinema representations of the past too much like
holy cards or plaster statues will appreciate a more biblically
"The Passion of the Christ" comes after more than a
century's old tradition of Jesus' films. The silent era produced short
instructional films as well as features like "From the Manger to
the Cross," the Italian "Christus" and the Gospel
section of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance." The major films of
the '20s were "Ben-Hur" and "The King of Kings,"
Cecil B. de Mille's epic.
For 35 years, 1927-1961, Jesus was not seen face-on as a character in
American studio Gospel films. He was seen in a number of features made
by American Protestant companies. He was glimpsed in part (a hand, an
arm, his legs on the cross or was seen from a distance) in films as
"The Robe" and "Ben-Hur" in the 1950s.
After the gap, Jeffrey Hunter appeared as the "King of
Kings," Max Von Sydow in "The Greatest Story Ever
Told." When Jeffrey Hunter spoke in "King of Kings," it
was the first time audiences had heard an actor speak the words of
Pasolini made a powerful black-and-white version in the 1960s,
"The Gospel According to Matthew," and Rosselini made
"The Messiah" in the early 1970s. Brian Deacon appeared as
Jesus, a more evangelical approach in the film "Jesus"
(which was distributed in an edited version to pilgrims visiting Rome
for the millennial Jubilee). This trend reached its peak with
Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" in the late 1970s.
Popular musical movements of the late '60s produced "Jesus Christ
Superstar" and "Godspell," which were both filmed in
Most of the films aimed at presenting a "realistic" Jesus
but many of them (including Pasolini) used the straight Gospel texts
(which were intended to be read) as a substantial part of their
screenplays, an over-literal use of the Gospels.
Zeffirelli, on the other hand, employed the same method as was used in
the forming of the Gospels, taking incidents in Jesus' life and
combining them dramatically to make an impact on the audience.
Nevertheless, with the use of Western actors, [and] European or
American locations, these films were not as realistic as intended.
The musicals highlighted how screen Gospel storytelling is more
stylized than "realistic."
Since 1988, there have been a number of screen portrayals of Jesus:
"The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), which was a
novelized version of the Gospels; "Jesus of Montreal" (1988)
and "Man Dancin'" (2003) which were stories of putting on a
passion play in a modern city; the animated Jesus in "The Miracle
Maker" (2000); and Jeremy Sisto's engaging blend of the human and
divine in the American telemovie, "Jesus" (1999).
More recently, there has been the rather American picture of Jesus in
Paulist Film Production's telemovie "Jesus" (2001, due for
screening in 2004) and a more traditional Jesus in Philip Saville's
"The Gospel of John."
It is in this tradition that "The Passion" comes to the
screen. Mel Gibson had indicated his skills in directing with
"Man Without a Face" (1993) and his Oscar-winning "Braveheart"
One of the principal intentions of the director and his
co-screenwriter, Ben Fitzgerald, is to immerse audiences in the
realism of the passion of Jesus. Actor Jim Caviezel was chosen to play
Jesus (the only other name performer is Italy's Monica Bellucci as
Caviezel was the same age as Jesus when the film was shot. As
mentioned earlier, he is a believable human Jesus, a big, solid
workingman who was able to stand up to the terrible sufferings of the
passion before he died.
One of the controversial aspects of the film was the early decision to
have the film's dialogue in Aramaic and Latin but to have no
subtitles. The language decision was followed through and works well.
We needed the subtitles, many of which are quotations from Scripture.
There is no distraction in hearing anachronistic American or British
voices and accents. Rather, the audience hears what conversation was
like in those days. It is helpful to be reminded that Jesus spoke
Aramaic and not English!
A useful distinction to be made is that between "realism"
and "naturalism." The latter refers to filmmaking that
portrays action as it is, home movies being a popular example, as is
footage shot for newscasts. "Realism" is filmmaking that
helps audience have a genuine feel for what is going on on the screen,
as if it were real. A number of cinematic devices, such as the style
of different compositions for the screen, the types of shots and the
pace of the editing can be used to give this impression of realism.
Mel Gibson has opted for much of his film to be
"naturalistic." He has plenty of time available and is in no
hurry to take us away from the picture of Jesus' suffering.
Perhaps a number of people in the audience will find the scourging (in
two grim parts) too much to watch. With most of the characters being
portrayed in a naturalistic way, the action seems authentic.
However, Gibson is able to use cinematic devices which alter
perceptions, helping us to realize that we are seeing a particular
version of the passion, as all of us do when we listen to the passion
narratives and use our imaginations. He frequently uses moments of
slow-motion filming to make us dwell on a particular moment.
This naturalism is seen in the confrontation in Gethsemane, at Jesus'
trial, with the scourging and the crowning with thorns and,
especially, the way of the cross as Jesus struggles with the cross,
falls with thudding impact, is nailed and the cross raised.
The stylization is seen in the close-ups, with the differences in
lighting (Gethsemane blue, the confined space of the High Priest's
court lamplit, the broad daylight of the way of the cross), the
framing of the characters with memories of the traditions of Christian
painting, the lighting and some of the tableaux, the passing of time
as Jesus hangs on the cross, his death and the apocalyptic aftermath,
the intimations of the resurrection.
This offers a credible picture and understanding of Jesus. Gibson has
introduced some effective elements to reinforce this. For instance, in
the garden, Jesus is hit in the eye and from then on and during the
trial, he has the use only of one eye; when he is able to open his
injured eye, Gibson makes a great deal of his ability with
eye-contact, with Pilate, with his mother and with John at the foot of
the cross, simply looking at Jesus and nodding as he agrees to care
Comment has already been made on the use and insertion of flashbacks.
Dramatically, familiar Gospel characters are briefly developed which
helps the narrative: Peter, Judas, Pilate, Pilate's wife, Simon of
Cyrene, Herod, the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Veronica is
introduced as she watches Jesus pass and wipes his face with her cloth
-- but Gibson shows restraint by letting us see her holding the cloth
and, if we look closely, suggestions of the outline of Jesus' face can
The Roman soldiers are also vividly dramatized: the brutes at the
scourging with their sadistic commander, the drunken soldiery mocking
and brutalizing Jesus along the way and on Calvary, the more
sympathetic centurion. The key figure who has powerful dramatic impact
in every Jesus' film is Judas. The taunting of the tormented Judas and
the children pursuing him to his death is dramatically effective.
"The Passion of the Christ" offers a credible, naturalistic
Jesus whose sufferings of body and spirit are real. What impact it
will have on those who are not believers is very difficult to predict.
For those who believe, there is the challenge of seeing pain and
torture which are easier to read about than to see, but there is also
the satisfaction of experiencing familiar Gospel stories in a
--Peter Malone, MSC