"The Passion Of The Christ" - a personal reaction to a passionately personal film

As is often the case, myself and the other English De La Mennais Brothers (8 of us in total) went on our annual retreat last year during Holy Week. On this occasion we went to a Franciscan Friary in Pantasaph, North Wales. We will soon be going on retreat again. As well as helping me to recharge my spiritual batteries it gave me the chance to mull over Mel Gibson's "Passion..." film. Here is something I wrote about the film on Good friday last year...

I say hats off to him. It may be old-school Catholic theology in terms of how it presents the redemptive quality of Jesus' sacrifice, bearing the sins of the whole of humanity, but it's old-school updated. The focus, in terms of Jesus' motivation, is put on the depth of his love for us as well as on his desire to do his father's will. It's a very personal vision of the Passion that will not perhaps be to the taste of everyone but it's one that I found I could relate to far more easily than in any other Jesus film. The violence is in my view not at all gratuitous and always given a context. Many things about the film left me quite stunned. I felt that it was the closest thing I'd seen on screen to what might have really happened (the attitudes of the various people, the settings, the no-holds barred account of the scourging and crucifixion itself. One could pick arguments over issues such as that of nails in his palms or his wrists, but for me, to focus on such things would be to miss the point of the film. It's use of references to scenes described by mystic writers not contained in the Gospels and to the history of religious art (eg. the deliberate composition of the Pieta image) show a willingness on the part of Gibson to try and represent a spiritual truth filtered through the history of the Church and his own spiritual journey, rather than a literal, "historic" one. The use of "authentic" languages (latin and aramaic) is itself a stroke of genius as you no longer have to cope with a variety of Mid-Atlantic, European and Middle-Eastern actors all vying for the John Wayne prize for Most Inappropriate Accent (re "The Greatest Story Ever Told" - Wayne as Cowboy Centurion: "He trulee was the Son of Gad!" It is said that when Wayne was asked by the director to say the phrase with awe, he continued as follows... "Aw, he trulee was the Son of Gad!" - bless!).

I also thought that the acting was first rate, though again Gibson has been clever here in predominantly casting relative unknowns (Monica Belucci as Mary Magdalene being an exception). We therefore don't bring so much film culture baggage to the viewing of the film than we would if, say, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts had been cast as Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Then it would always be Brad Pitt playing Jesus. Having said that, I've seen three other films with Jim Caviezel (Jesus) in; The Thin Red Line, Frequency and The Count Of Monte Cristo. He is particularly good in the former film and from it I can see why Gibson might have cast him for the Passion. He has a face that radiates compassion and soulfulness without being effete. His lack of media-friendly off- screen persona means, however, that in Hollywood celebrity terms he's rather anonymous and this serves him and Gibson's film well.

There are some lovely touches that show the thoughtfulness of Gibson's approach and which work well both in cinematic and spiritual/theological terms, eg. Peter's encounter with Mary and John after denying Jesus, the fact that Peter and John both call Mary "Mother" (with a capital "M" in the subtitles), the Hollywood-style slow motion of the arrest sequence, etc... I won't give everything away for those who've not seen it yet, but there's a lovely short scene involving the two Mary's after Jesus' scourging at the pillar, apparently inspired by the writings of a female mystic saint. Also, during the way of the cross Mary watches impotently from a narrow alleyway with John by her side as Jesus passes the end of the alleyway, falling as he does so. After a poignant flashback to Jesus' childhood she rushes (pure Hollywood this, but it works) to his side, only for Jesus to say to her, "See how I make all things new". This is a reference to Revelation 21:5 and the new creation, the Heavenly Jerusalem instituted by Jesus' death and resurrection, that which is built on love and freedom from sin with the invitation to become sons and daughters of God.

Gibson uses flashbacks very aptly throughout the film to flesh out Jesus' relationship with his mother and especially to give a theological context in which to understand our viewing of his suffering. For example, during the crucifixion there are flashbacks to the Last Supper. We get the commandment of love from John's Gospel and in particular John 15:13 - "No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends." We also get the institution of the Eucharist from the Synoptic Gospels just before his death on the cross - "Take it and eat. This is my body given for you." Until yesterday and a bit of time spent researching elements of the film, I never realised that none of the Gospels relate both of the following phrases of Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and "Father into your hands I commend my spirit." But putting the two together in the film as Gibson does adds a nice symmetry with the opening sequence of the film where we see Jesus at Gethsemane, passing through fear and doubt, and an encounter with Satan (a disturbing, but effective personified presence in the film), before finally submitting himself to his father's will and crushing a snake that Satan has placed in his path (an effective reference to Genesis 3:15 and God's cursing of the serpent in the garden of Eden - "I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel").

Plenty of material here and elsewhere for a reflection on the nature of Jesus self-giving and many other themes (I'll be turning this message into a longer article for the Chaplaincy part of my website soon). Whether or not you accept Gibson's approach from a theological point of view, the film has the great merit of being a technically well-made, dramatically effective, emotionally wrenching, totally sincere piece of work that has helped and will help countless people come closer to/rediscover God in their lives.

One last point. In The Thin Red Line (a most thoughtful, reflective war film set during the 2nd WW Pacific campaign against the Japanese) Jim Caviezel dies a hero, someone respected by his fellow soldiers for his compassion, for his courage and for his religious beliefs. His death makes even crusty Sean Penn cry, someone who Caviezel's character has debates with during the film about the meaning of life, etc... Caviezel's Jesus has a similarly universal appeal. He has the matinee looks of a classic romantic lead, capable of making the women swoon with one glance from his compassionate, sensitive eyes. He has a sense of humour and is quick to smile. And yet there is great strength of character, steel, determination and authority in him. You can therefore also see how he would have been respected by gruff, macho characters such as Peter. He's a man's man. More than that - and this should be no surprise given that Gibson's previous directorial outings include Braveheart and the Patriot - this Jesus is a hero. Perhaps this is Gibson's (and Caviezel's) greatest success in this film; to portray an heroic Jesus of universal appeal. As such, this film could indeed prove to be the best tool for evangelisation that the modern era has yet to be blessed with.

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