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Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ': a contemporary masterpiece
The following review of 'The Passion' is provided by David Schütz, Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is a very Catholic version of the passion story. This may not be obvious to Catholics who see the film, but it cannot fail to strike anyone who was brought up with a more Protestant version of the story. Those who have been raised on the traditional Stations of the Cross rather than the reading of the Gospel accounts of the Passion may think that the "three falls" of Christ and Veronica's veil are all standard elements of the scriptural Via Crucis, rather than time honoured traditions of the Church. Gibson represents these traditional elements as faithfully as the scriptural elements.
The artistic style of the film will also be familiar to Catholics. There are nods to the Catholic artistic tradition of the past everywhere, including the traditional Catholic representation of the crucifixion (one nail through both feet, rather than the Orthodox alternative of one nail through each foot) and the "Pieta" scene after Christ's descent from the cross. Visually, this is the Passion of the Counter-Reformation, consciously modelled on the work of Caravaggio (1571-1610).
But the most strikingingly "Catholic" aspect of this film, which no Protestant can fail to miss and almost every Catholic review I have read has missed, is the prominence of Mary at every stage of the story. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the true "passion" in the film is the suffering of the Mother of Christ, rather than Christ himself.
There is certainly a good deal of emphasis upon the physical sufferings of Christ. Gibson goes overboard in this regard, especially in the scene depicting the scourging of Christ. Half the number of blows would have killed a man outright. It is simply not believable that anyone could stand let alone carry a cross up a sizeable hill after such treatment. Even the spiritual suffering of Jesus (given most emphasis in the opening scene in Gethsemane) seems overdone. We are prompted to ask with Peter, James and John "What's wrong with him?", as he appears soaked with sweat and feverish with trembling. Not enough time is given in the film for the viewer to develop an emotional engagement with the character of Jesus, and the physical brutality does not assist in this.
Sympathy for Mary
By contrast, the character of Mary has our sympathy immediately. Here we are faced with the universal relationship between a mother and her son. Our familiarity with this in our own lives helps us to instantly engage with Mary, who makes her first appearance early in the film at Jesus' trial and continues to be present till the very last. There is clearly a spiritual "bond" between Mary and Jesus, demonstrated by the scene where Christ is imprisoned underground, and she, on the floor above him, searches out his presence and kneels down on the flagstones to be nearer to him. She is also held in high regard by the disciples, who address her as "Mother". The viewer may be startled to see that after his triple denial of Christ, Peter turns to Mary for support in his confusion and despair. Already she is taking on the role of intercessor.
From an emotional point of view, I found engagement with the film through Mary. In one of the earliest "flash-back" scenes, we see Jesus at work in his carpenter's shop. There, Mary engages in playful and affectionate humour with her grown son. Her emotional pain during the scourging is more powerful than Jesus' physical torment. In particular, there is a scene where Jesus falls under the weight of the cross. Mary runs to him saying "I'm here, I'm here", and at the same time we see a "flash-back" to Jesus as a young child falling and hurting his knee, and Mary running to him in comfort and protection - a protection that she cannot now give to her son. The final climax of this interplay between mother and son is when Jesus speaks from the cross to St John: "Behold, your mother."
During the film, I found myself deeply drawn to Mary. Non-Catholics may question such an emphasis in a film of the Passion of the Christ, but one needs to take account of two facts. In the Gospels of Matthew and John, Mary is prominent at the foot of the Cross. If she was there, it is unthinkable that she was not present at the earlier stages of his passion, following him as he carried his cross to Golgotha. When we recall that St Simeon, in Luke's Gospel, predicted that a "sword would pierce Mary's heart also", then we can see that Mr Gibson had more than enough justification to take the audacious step of visioning the entire passion through the eyes of the Mother of Christ.
The Passion of the Christ was, for me, a religious and devotional experience. This was the case in spite of, rather than because of, the physical violence that scored the film an MA rating. It was entirely due to the very human, but also divine, relationship between the Mother and the Son, and the intimate way in which she is depicted as sharing in his Passion.
A footnote: Is "The Passion" anti-semitic?
It is a great pity that charges of anti-Semitism were made concerning this film long before it even reached filming stage, let alone released for viewing. Perhaps it is impossible today to create a version of the Passion that is faithful to the Gospels and the Tradition of the Church without this charge being laid. One should be quite clear that in the film there are only two races depicted: Jews and Romans. There are good guys and bad guys among both races, and naturally enough, given the story, the deciding point is their reaction to Christ. One character stands out among all others, in the person of Simon of Cyrene. We are not given to understand either in the Gospels or in this film that Simon is a follower of or a believer in Jesus. Yet his actions in relation to Christ are that of a just and righteous man. He is also clearly Jewish.
We need to remember too that the treatment Jesus received was not unique. The Romans crucified tens of thousands of Jews. Only one, however, rose from the dead.
Cardinal George Pell has described Mel Gibson's film 'The Passion' as "a contemporary masterpiece, artistically and technically", worthy to be compared with "the paintings of the Italian master Caravaggio, because of its beauty and drama".
The film, said Cardinal Pell, "shows us how Jesus redeems us from our sins", with his message "one of universal love, certainly love for his own people, the Jews".
Cardinal Pell considers that "generations of believers will see Mel Gibson's 'The Passion' as a classic". But he adds that it is "not for the faint-hearted".
This is a timely caution, as some readers may find the film's graphic, relentless violence and cruelty more than they can handle.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 17 No 3 (April 2004), p. 8
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