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ROME NOTES: Viewing the Finished "Passion"; Any U.S. Saints?

2/20/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Brutal, but Not Gratuitous

By Delia Gallagher

ROME, FEB 19, 2004 (Zenit) - I must admit, I was not chomping at the bit to see Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ."

For one, I had heard it was violent, and I cannot stomach violence. Then, I already knew the story and its ending; and all of the pre-release polemics, far from inciting my curiosity, made me feel already fed-up with the film.

But then the call came: an invitation to a private pre-release screening of the final version. Well, we all know, calls must be answered. And that is how I ended up, on Valentine's Day, at the movies with Jesus.

So: it is very violent. It was almost too much to bear. My overriding impression was: What horror! I forced myself to keep my eyes on the screen as the Roman soldiers' steel-hooked whips ripped into the flesh of a writhing Jesus, handcuffed to a marble block, leaving him after perhaps a half-hour of nonstop scourging, a mess of slashes oozing scarlet blood and yellow pus; chunks of his skin spattered on the white granite floor and on the faces of his drunken and mad torturers. All this before he had even been condemned to death.

A listless Jesus, hair matted with blood and one eye fully shut from the beatings, is then covered with a red haircloth digging into the fresh wounds, a crown of spiked thorns crammed into his bloodied head and taken before Pilate and the crowd for the famous "Crucify him!" scene.

Jesus is so completely physically reduced at this point that if one didn't know the story, one would expect him to die right there. The coming crucifixion, one thinks, will almost be a relief.

Is the violence exaggerated? Probably so. Is it a defensible use of artistic license? Yes, I think.

Any Catholic who has sat through years of annual memorials of the Stations of the Cross and three-hour-long Good Friday services with readings from the passion, will surely never have meditated on the suffering of Jesus in quite this way. The violence may be excessive but it is not gratuitous.

The figure of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, brings an emotional gravitas to the terrible violence and was the chief reason, I think, for the tears of those around me. For while it is difficult to completely identify with the suffering of Jesus, it is less of a stretch to understand the overwhelming pain of his Mother, who watches her son from beginning to end being whipped, tortured and nailed to a cross.

One understands why Mary is such a revered figure in Catholicism: not so much for her "fiat" when told she would bear the Son of God -- that was the easy part -- but her "fiat" in witnessing his suffering and crucifixion.

Any mother, indeed anyone who has ever loved, will know the wild pain of watching as a loved one suffers, unable to do anything, and the willingness to be put in his place, if only he could be spared.

The actress Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary, is perfectly cast. She is not a delicate, innocent beauty, but an earthy and strong woman.

In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, after Jesus is scourged by the Romans, and the crowds disperse, Mary is seen alone with Mary Magdalene (played by Italian beauty Monica Bellucci), wiping up the blood-splattered pavement with white cloths.

It is a futile act; so strange in the context, yet that is exactly what a mother does: cleans up the mess in the midst of her despair. Theologians will also note here Mary's appreciation for Jesus' precious blood, but the purely human element is striking in its own right.

As to the accusations about the film's alleged anti-Semitism, I side with those who say that perhaps Jews and Christians will view this movie through different lenses. I, for one, did not notice any overtly anti-Jewish exaggeration of the original Gospel sources.

That the Gospels themselves may contain anti-Jewish elements is a debate that must be argued with the historical-religious context in mind and only the beginning of a longer debate about Christians' contribution to the history of anti-Semitism.

That Jews may fear a reprisal of anti-Semitic sentiment because of the film, is a concern that should be taken seriously. My guess, though, is that those fears will prove to be unfounded.

I have seen a checklist of "motifs-to-look-out-for" compiled by two Jewish professors from a U.S. university and circulated widely in anticipation of the movie, based on earlier script versions they had read. The checklist asks, for instance, if the Jewish men in the movie are portrayed as being scruffy, while the Romans are clean-shaven. I found myself answering "no" to this and most of the "possible motifs."

Another question of the checklist is: "Is it fair to say that the film is so violent in expressing Jesus' ...

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