July 25, 2003
I've just witnessed the rebirth of great Catholic art in our time.
A few days ago I was fortunate to be part of a small group of journalists, pundits, and Christian leaders in Washington, DC, who were invited to an early screening of Mel Gibson's new movie, The Passion.
The film focuses on the last few hours in the life of Christ, and the result is truly stunning. Gibson and his film company, Icon Productions, have come under heavy fire lately from the Anti-Defamation League and a group of professors from--where else?--Boston College, who say that the film is anti-Semitic and will encourage violence against Jews. But these accusations are based on an early script of the movie that wasn't even filmed, one that was stolen without Icon's permission. You can tell from their loaded questions and criticisms that these people haven't seen the movie. Yet their protests have already made it to all the papers, crippling the film before it even leaves the starting gate (it isn't slated for release until Ash Wednesday of next year). So what's the REAL story behind this controversial new film? One of the qualifications for viewing the movie at the screening was signing a confidentiality agreement, but I've been authorized to tell you the following: From an aesthetic standpoint, the film is beautiful. Its visual narrative carries traces of the long tradition of Christian art, from the very earliest Christian styles and medieval iconography up to pre-Raphaelite images. As for the casting, it's fabulous: The faces of the actors carry the movie. Only two are even moderately well-known stars, Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. Both are powerful in their roles, but the face of Maia Morgenstern, playing the role of Mary, the mother of God, will stay with you the rest of your life. She makes you forget you're watching a movie. The music--a combination of Middle-Eastern sounds and Hebrew chanting--is well-chosen and adds to the visual drama unfolding before you. Composed by Jack Lenz, the music becomes part of the dialogue itself. Many people were concerned that the movie was filmed entirely in Aramaic and Latin, one of Gibson's appeals to historical accuracy (there are English subtitles). Instead of being a hindrance, though, it actually enhances the film. Within the first 10 minutes, you become accustomed to the sounds, and then the realization hits you: You're hearing the words of Jesus, Pilate, and his disciples as they were originally spoken. There aren't any hackneyed performances of the English lines, so there's a freshness to the words that we often miss. And Aramaic is a guttural language, one that punctuates the drama of the film perfectly.
The Passion is a great work of art. Mel Gibson has given a beautiful gift to the Church and to God.