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From mosaics and music to paintings and plays, the arts have proven to be a mighty vehicle for retelling the Bible and bringing its stories vividly before our senses. A special intensity marks the art created for the Lenten period. Allegri’s Miserere, the moving rendition of Psalm 51 sung on Good Friday, Niccolo dell’Arca’s Lamentation of the Dead Christ with its terra-cotta figures circling in wild grief over the dead Christ, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poetic journey lasting from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, are but a few of the great Lenten works that can move the imagination to consider different aspects of the passion. In The Passion of the Christ, scheduled to open in theatres on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson adds a work of cinematic art worthy to be mentioned with these classics of Christian culture.

Gibson’s Passion is bound to change our estimation of how a film can portray the life of Christ. Until now, movies about Jesus generally have been of two kinds. The first—perhaps to avoid trespassing on sacred terrain—abandons any ties to a canonical text. Here we can think of the whimsical Jesus in Montreal, or the hootenanny “gospels” of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. There are also those provocateurs who try to win an audience through the “unauthorized biography” approach, such as Martin Scorsese in his film version of Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. Films of this sort pay the price of making Jesus appear smaller and less compelling than the figure we can encounter in reading or, as the case may be, in questioning the canonical texts.

The film that most nearly succeeds in this “relevant Jesus” mode is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s avowedly Marxist rendition of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). (Gibson surely learned from Pasolini, as he makes use of the little town of Sassi Matera, where Pasolini also filmed his gospel.) Pasolini’s cinema-verité shots, nonprofessional actors, and monochrome photography make a visually riveting movie, one that disarms our liturgically and textually informed imagination with its strange and sometimes grotesque iconography, particularly the faces of its common people. If pure film makes what we know depend upon what we see, Pasolini’s movie comes very close to being pure film. Yet because he is so determined to interpret the life of Jesus as a Gramscian allegory of popular liberation, Pasolini makes Jesus less interesting than the rest of the cast of truck drivers, waiters, and prostitutes he recruited for the film. The theme of class liberation also makes for unintended comedy. After the resurrection, for example, the camera follows peasants running gleefully through the fields with scythes and pitchforks only to encounter Christ waiting for an audience before ascending into heaven.

The second kind of gospel film makes a serious effort to tell the canonical story by means of a visual tableau. The best-known example is Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which ploddingly covers the camels and magi, the teachings and parables, the miracles, plots, and subplots of Jesus’ life. The beautiful faces and rich settings have a tapestry-like quality, but we never quite forget that we are watching a 371-minute-long visual ornamentation of a textual narrative. For religious people, and probably for most nonbelievers, it is perfectly safe viewing—better, no doubt, than a spaghetti-western gospel—but it is not a work of art that haunts the viewer. A stronger entry in this category is the Gospel of John, currently showing in theatres. Advertised as a “word-for-word adaptation” of the Fourth Gospel, narrated by Christopher Plummer, it is religiously serious precisely because it adheres to the canonical text, but it does not fully transcend the genre of documentary.

It is thus demonstrably difficult to satisfy the demands of cinematic art and canonical text. But Gibson’s Passion is a new kind of film which does just that. In the tradition of Lenten art, he focuses intensely on the climatic moment of the Christ saga, intensifying the power of its sacramental aspects. From the agony in the garden, where Gibson begins, to the pieta  at the foot of the cross, Jesus does what he teaches. In the sacred text itself, the last twelve hours of his life contain only the tersest dialogue. The parables have all been spoken. The disciples have slunk away. From here, the question of the Christ is telescoped by Gibson into what we see—or, more accurately, what we are able to watch.

Zefferelli’s movie is comparable to a Ghirlandaio painting—exquisite, but the figures occupy only half the canvas. By contrast, Gibson’s figures are in the style of Michelangelo, filling the screen, looming over us, threatening to enter our space. It is unnerving art. When the Roman soldiers call out “vertere crucem” the audience tenses. The soldiers lift the cross, prop it on its side for an agonizing moment, and then let it fall over towards us. As it crashes to the ground, an audible gasp sounds in the theater. The viewer is denied the detachment of looking through a window into a faraway world and is drawn into the scenes as a humble, perhaps helpless, participant.

The emphasis on the visual is accentuated by the sparse dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, making it all the more necessary to pay attention to what we see rather than what we hear. Gibson remarked in a recent interview that “Caravaggio’s paintings don’t have subtitles, but people get the message.” In the version we saw at a screening in Rome, subtitles were included, but not many, and they didn’t provide any psychological refuge. Nor do the few flashbacks of Jesus instituting the Eucharist and washing the apostles’ feet, of the young Jesus with his mother, or of Jesus protecting the adulteress from the mob’s stones. These flashbacks give some context, but mostly they offer the viewer a brief moment to catch his breath before returning to the visual assault.

Gibson has taken an audacious gamble by filling the screen with images that are undeniably brutal; few will be able to watch the scourging of Jesus without turning away. Though the movie is fairly fast-paced, the scourging is long and drawn out, seeming never to end. It begins with a caning, but just when one thinks, “that was unpleasant but not as bad as I expected,” the soldiers pull out a spiked scourge and begin a new round of battering. Later, when the gates of the city are thrown open for the ascent to Calvary, we see Golgotha on the horizon and wonder whether we can traverse that distance with Jesus.

Ultimately, The Passion of the Christ is about witnessing and bearing witness. On one level, the film is calculated to make us want to turn away and go home. At the outset, Jesus tells his disciples in the garden that he doesn’t want them to see him in such a condition. He worries about what they are soon to see: a suffering servant who looks like anything but a king, and whose tortured body will seem quite beyond repair.

Thankfully, as the scenes become harder and harder to watch, the viewer is offered an example, a guide as to how we are supposed to react to the increasingly disturbing images. This comes in the form of Jesus’ mother, brilliantly played by the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern. Though Mary is the person most affected by these shattering events, she also understands better than anyone the necessity of what her son must do, and she consents to his mission and her own role in it. She in turn shows the audience what they must do. During the scourging, we see Mary with her head lowered, barely able to support herself as she hears the incessant beating of her son. As we think to ourselves, “no mother should have to witness such a thing,” she gathers her strength, lifts her head, and continues to look. If she can, we can. Then, in the harrowing pieta  scene at the end of the film, Mary looks directly out at the viewer as she holds the body of Christ, reminding us with her glance that we, too, have been witnessing these events, and that it is now we who are called to bear witness to what we have seen. Like Caravaggio’s Deposition, Gibson’s film places the bulk of responsibility on the viewer.

This emphasis on the role of Mary far outstrips what Pasolini or Zeffirelli was able to imagine. Where Zeffirelli’s Mary, played by the hauntingly lovely Olivia Hussey, elicits compassion, Gibson’s Mary provides comfort. Like the Eve who accompanies Adam in every scene in the Sistine Chapel vault, Mary, it seems, is always present in Gibson’s Passion. Her face is the most reliable clue to the meaning of the unfolding events.

She is paralleled on screen by Satan, played by Rosalinda Celentano as a black-cowled, androgynous bystander. After the scourging, Satan holds a grotesque child in mockery of the old Adam, and also of Mary’s eventual pieta. Then there is the remarkable confrontation in the film between Satan and Mary. As Jesus climbs towards Calvary, Satan glides through the crowd, feeding on the tangible wickedness in the air; Mary is on the other side of the road, trying to reach her son. She locks eyes with Satan, as determined as Satan is smug. Gibson’s disturbing technique of filling the screen with Jesus’ body, almost allowing him to tumble into our laps, is contained visually only by the fact that Mary constantly touches, holds, and comforts the corpus. We find ourselves thinking, “thank God someone else will keep this mess from falling onto us.” To be sure, Gibson employs a mélange of different iconographic traditions; but no other film we have seen has so powerfully depicted the ecclesial and corporate Mary. When she approaches the cross and kisses the feet of Jesus, the camera closes in to show her lips covered with the blood of Christ—the bride inebriated with matrimonial wine.

But all of this makes Gibson’s Passion nearly the opposite of the arcane and politically fraught tradition of the passion play. Such performances were often staged to incite the audience to choose sides, to “save” the integrity and honor of Christ by constituting a kind of party against Judas, the Jews, and the mob in Pilate’s courtyard. Had Gibson used the power of film to give this twisted but all-too-human political stereotype a new lease on life, concerns about the film stirring up anti-Judaism or hostility against nonbelievers would be justified. To his credit, however, Gibson denies the audience any shred of political or religious triumph, or, for that matter, defeat. Even a viewer who already knows and religiously believes in the final outcome of the story must struggle to keep watching, which is humiliating in its own right. There might be reason for scholars and religious authorities to raise questions about Gibson’s synthesizing of distinct scriptural accounts of the passion, or about his use of extra-biblical iconography. But it is hard to imagine anyone coming out of Gibson’s movie with an appetite for a religiously politicized passion. If anything, this is the definitive post-passion-play passion.

Last year, theological criticisms and concerns were expressed on the basis of an unofficial script apparently stolen from Gibson’s production company. Whatever the provenance of the script, this criticism was bound to miss its target because the film depends almost entirely on what the camera shows rather than on dialogue. Though the film occasionally draws on extra-biblical sources, the theological outlook it presupposes is standard Christian fare. Gibson read the visions of the Venerable Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, an eighteenth-century German stigmatist and mystic. The Romantic poet Klemens Brentano (author of Des Knaben Wunderhorn), put the visions into writing, beginning with the Dolorous Passion (1833). The book is a series of simple but graphically detailed compositions of time and place. One of Gibson’s scenes is taken directly from Emmerich. After the scourging, Pilate’s wife Claudia gives linen cloths to Mary and the Magdalene, which they use to mop up the sacred blood. Emmerich also “sees” Jesus on the Mount of Olives looking at the very grotto where Adam and Eve took refuge after being expelled from Paradise; Satan tempting Jesus, saying that the restoration of Adam is too great a burden for one man; and, at the cross, Jesus as the second Adam asleep, from whose side is brought forth the new Eve. Indeed, Gibson’s movie begins with Jesus crushing the head of the serpent in the garden, and Adam–Christ/Eve–Mary typology is apparent throughout it. Still, the question of how much of this imagery was inspired by Emmerich’s visions is inessential, for such imagery and ideas abound in traditional Christian liturgy, hymnody, and iconography.

Gibson says that he set out to “transcend language with the message through an image.” Chances are that even the film industry, skeptical and skittish about the project, will have to recognize his artistic triumph. How its millions of viewers will reckon with the movie is another story. We think that it will induce humility rather than triumphalism. The film is so enthralling that perhaps some viewers will have to remind themselves that it is just a movie and not a substitute for the New Testament, much less for sacramental liturgies or the stations of the cross familiar to so many Christians during Lent. If, having seen and endured the film, Christians are able in a fresh way to wonder at the vault of the Sistine Chapel, if they can humbly return to their churches to participate in the spoken and sacramentally enacted Word, then Gibson’s Passion will have proven to be something even better than what it certainly is—the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ.

Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus.