Saturday, February 21, 2004

More Reaction to The Passion

(edited versions of two articles)

The Passion' … for Its Author, Is a Mass

Vittorio Messori on Mel Gibson's Work

ROME, FEB. 18, 2004 - Vittorio Messori is the first journalist in history to publish a book-length interview with a pope, the multimillion-selling Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), as well as numerous other works such as The Ratzinger Report (1987) . . . After seeing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, he wrote the following article for the Italian daily Corriere della .

A Passion of Violence and Love By Vittorio Messori

After two hours and six minutes, the lights flick on again in the little soundproof room. There are only about a dozen of us (I the sole journalist), and we are aware of a privilege. By invitation of Mel Gibson and producer Steve McEveety of Icon Films, we are the first in Europe to see the final copy of this film which just arrived from Los Angeles.

. . . Two women weep quietly, without sobbing; the monsignor in clergyman's dress who is next to me is very pale, his eyes closed; the young ecclesiastical secretary nervously fingers a rosary; a tentative, solitary start of applause quickly dies out in embarrassment.

For many, very long minutes, no one stands up, no one moves, no one speaks. So, what we were being told was true: The Passion of The Christ has struck us, it has worked in us, the first guinea pigs, the effect that Gibson wanted.

For what it's worth, I myself was disconcerted and speechless: For years I have examined one by one the Greek words with which the Evangelists recount those events; not one historical minutia of those 12 hours in Jerusalem is unknown to me. I have addressed it in a 400-page book that Gibson himself has taken into account. I know everything, or rather, I now discover that I thought I knew: everything changes if those words are translated into images of such power to transform in flesh and blood, striking signs of love and hatred.

The Gamble

Mel has said it with pride tempered by humility, with pragmatism kneaded with mysticism which becomes in him a singular mixture: "If this work was to fail, for 50 years there will be no future for religious films. We threw the best in here: as much money as we wished, prestige, time, rigor, the charism of great actors, the science of the learned, inspirations of the mystics, experience, advanced technology. Above all, we threw in our conviction that it was worthwhile, that what takes place in those hours concerns every man. Our eternity is bound up forever with this Jew. If we don't point this out, who will be able to do so? But we will point it out, I am sure of it: Our work was accompanied by too many signs that confirm it."

In fact, on the set much more happened than what is known; much will remain in the secret of consciences: conversions, release from drugs, reconciliation between enemies, giving up of adulterous ties, apparitions of mysterious personages, extraordinary explosions of energy, enigmatic figures who knelt down as the extraordinary Caviezel-Jesus passed by, even two flashes of lightning, one of which struck the cross, but did not hurt anyone . . .

Gibson remembered Blessed Angelico's warning: "To depict Christ, it is necessary to live with Christ." The atmosphere, between the Sassi di Matera and the Cinecittà Studios seems to have been that of the sacred medieval representations, of processions of scourged pilgrims before the relics of martyrs . . .

This film, for its author, is a Mass: Let it be, then, in an obscure language, as it was for so many centuries. If the mind does not understand, so much the better. What matters is that the heart understands that all that happened redeems us from sin and opens to us the doors of salvation . . . After a while, one stops reading the subtitles to enter, without distractions, in the terrible and marvelous scenes -- that are sufficient in themselves.

The Quality

On the technical plane, the work is of a very high quality, so much so that previous films on Jesus might seem reduced to poor and archaic relatives: in Gibson, strategic lighting, skillful photography, extraordinary costumes, rugged and sometimes sumptuous set designs, incredibly convincing makeup, recitations of great professionals supervised by a director who is also one of their illustrious colleagues. Above all, such amazing special effects which, as Enzo Sisti, the executive producer, said to us, will remain secret, to confirm the enigma of the work, where the technique is intended to be at the service of faith. A faith in the most Catholic version -- no accident that it was pleasing to the Pope and to so many cardinals, not excluding Ratzinger, for whom The Passion is a manifesto that abounds in symbols that only a competent eye can fully discern . . .

Very briefly, the radical "Catholicity" of the film lies first of all in the refusal of every demythicization, in taking the Gospels as precise chronicles: The things, we are told, happened like this, precisely as the Scriptures describe it. Catholicism is present, then, in the recognition of the divinity of Jesus which exists together with his full humanity. A divinity that bursts forth, dramatically, in the superhuman capacity of that body to suffer a level of pain as no one before or after ever has, in expiation of all the sin of the world.

But the radical "Catholicity" is also in the Eucharistic aspect, reaffirmed in its materiality: The blood of the Passion is continuously intermingled with the wine of the Mass, the tortured flesh of the "corpus Christi" with the consecrated bread. It is, also, in the strongly Marian tone: the Mother and the devil (who is feminine or, perhaps, androgynous) are omnipresent, the one with her silent pain, the other with his/her malicious satisfaction.

From Anne Catherine Emmerich, the stigmatized visionary, Gibson has taken extraordinary intuitions: Claudia Procula, Pilate's wife, who offers, weeping, to Mary the cloths to soak up the blood of the Son is among the scenes of greatest delicacy in a film that, more than violent, is brutal. Brutal as, in fact, the Passion was. The desperate Peter after the denial, falls at the feet of the Blessed Virgin to obtain pardon. I believe, however, that the theological importance attributed to the Madonna, as well as to the Eucharist -- an importance not spiritualized, not reduced to a "memorial" but seen in the most material, and therefore Catholic, way (the Transubstantiation) -- will create some uneasiness in American Protestant churches which, without having seen the film, have already organized themselves to support its distribution.

. . . It comes across very clearly in the film that what weighs Christ down and reduces him to that state is not this one's or that one's fault, but rather the sin of all men, no one excluded.

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"The Passion of the Christ"
Jody Dean, CBS news anchor

. . . The screening was on the first night of "Elevate!", a weekend-long seminar for young people at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano . . .

I want you to know that I started in broadcasting when I was 13-years-old. I've been in the business of writing, performing, production, and broadcasting for a long time. I've been a part of movies, radio, television, stage and other productions - so I know how things are done. I know about soundtracks and special effects and make-up and screenplays. I think I've seen just about every kind of movie or TV show ever made - from extremely inspirational to extremely gory. I read a lot, too - and have covered stories and scenes that still make me wince. I also have a vivid imagination, and have the ability to picture things as they must have happened - or to anticipate things as they will be portrayed . . .

But there is nothing in my existence - nothing I could have read, seen, heard, thought, or known - that could have prepared me for what I saw on screen last night. This is not a movie that anyone will "like". I don't think it's a movie anyone will "love". It certainly doesn't "entertain". There isn't even the sense that one has just watched a movie. What it is, is an experience - on a level of primary emotion that is scarcely comprehensible. Every shred of human preconception or predisposition is utterly stripped away. No one will eat popcorn during this film. Some may not eat for days after they've seen it. Quite honestly, I wanted to vomit. It hits that hard.

. . . There are no "winners". No one comes off looking "good" - except Jesus. Even His own mother hesitates. As depicted, the Jewish leaders of Jesus' day merely do what any of us would have done - and still do. They protected their perceived "place" - their sense of safety and security, and the satisfaction of their own "rightness". But everyone falters. Caiphus judges. Peter denies. Judas betrays. Simon the Cyrene balks. Mark runs away. Pilate equivocates. The crowd mocks. The soldiers laugh. Longinus still stabs with his pilus. The centurion still carries out his orders. And as Jesus fixes them all with a glance, they still turn away. The Jews, the Romans, Jesus' friends - they all fall. Everyone, except the Principal Figure. Heaven sheds a single, mighty tear - and as blood and water spew from His side, the complacency of all creation is eternally shattered.

The film grabs you in the first five seconds, and never lets go. The brutality, humiliation, and gore is almost inconceivable - and still probably doesn't go far enough. The scourging alone seems to never end, and you cringe at the sound and splatter of every blow - no matter how steely your nerves. Even those who have known combat or prison will have trouble, no matter their experience - because this Man was not conscripted. He went willingly, laying down His entirety for all. It is one thing for a soldier to die for his countrymen. It's something else entirely to think of even a common man dying for those who hate and wish to kill him. But this is no common man. This is the King of the Universe. The idea that anyone could or would have gone through such punishment is unthinkable - but this Man was completely innocent, completely holy - and paying the price for others. He screams as He is laid upon the cross, "Father, they don't know. They don't know..."

What Gibson has done is to use all of his considerable skill to portray the most dramatic moment of the most dramatic events since the dawn of time. There is no escape. It's a punch to the gut that puts you on the canvas, and you don't get up. You are simply confronted by the horror of what was done - what had to be done - and why. Throughout the entire film, I found myself apologizing.

What you've heard about how audiences have reacted is true. There was no sound after the film's conclusion. No noise at all. No one got up. No one moved. The only sound one could hear was sobbing. In all my years of public life, I have never heard anything like that.


. . . The truth is this: Is it just a "movie"? In a way, yes. But it goes far beyond that, in a fashion I've never felt - in any forum. We may think we "know". We know nothing. We've gone 2,000 years - used to the idea of a pleasant story, and a sanitized Christ. We expect the ending, because we've heard it so many times. God forgive us. This film tears that all away. It's is as close as any of us will ever get to knowing, until we fully know. Paul understood. "Be urgent, in and out of season." Luke wrote that Jesus reveals Himself in the breaking of the bread. Exactly. "The Passion Of The Christ" shows that Bread being broken.

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