Mel Gibson's "Passion": On Review at the Vatican

Exclusive Interview With Father Di Noia of the Doctrinal Congregation

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 8, 2003 ( Several high-ranking Vatican officials who attended a private screening of Mel Gibson’s «The Passion of the Christ» this past weekend in Rome came away impressed.

Members from the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the group that oversees Catholic doctrinal questions, expressed unanimous appreciation and approval of the film.

The following is an exclusive ZENIT interview with one of the viewers, Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the doctrinal congregation.

Father Di Noia taught theology in Washington, D.C., for 20 years, and served for seven years as the theologian for the U.S. bishops’ conference before coming to work for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the doctrinal congregation a little over a year ago.

The film is scheduled for release in 2004.

Q: Mel Gibson’s «The Passion of the Christ» has been a newsmaker for months — well before its scheduled release. As one of the handful of people who have actually seen it, what is your overall impression of the film?

Father Di Noia: Seeing this film will be an intensely religious experience for many people. It was for me.

Stunning cinematography and consistently brilliant acting, combined with the director’s profound spiritual insight into the theological meaning of the passion and death of Christ — all contribute to a production of exquisite artistic and religious sensitivity.

Anyone seeing this film — believer and unbeliever alike — will be forced to confront the central mystery of Christ’s passion, indeed of Christianity itself: If this is the remedy, what must the harm have been?

The Curé of Ars says somewhere that no one could have an idea or explain what Our Lord has suffered for us; to grasp this, we would have to know all the harm sin has caused him, and we won’t know this until the hour of our death.

In a way that only great art can do, Mel Gibson’s film helps us grasp something almost beyond our comprehension. At the outset, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the devil tempts Christ with the unavoidable question: How can anyone bear the sins of the whole world? It’s too much. Christ nearly shrinks at the prospect, but then convincingly proceeds to do just that — to take on, according to his Father’s will, the sins of the whole world. It’s astonishing really.

There is a powerful sense, sustained throughout the film, of the cosmic drama of which we are all a part. There is no possibility of neutrality here, and no one can remain simply an onlooker in these events. The stakes are very high indeed — something that, apart from Christ himself, is most clearly intuited only by his mother Mary and by the ever-present devil.

Gradually the viewer joins the characters in a dawning realization about this as the action moves inexorably from the Mount of Olives to the Mount of Calvary.

Q: Is the film faithful to account of the passion of Christ in the New Testament?

Father Di Noia: Remember, there are four accounts of the passion of Christ in the New Testament, concerned chiefly to present the religious meaning of these events.

In «The Death of the Messiah» — probably the most complete and most balanced study of the Passion narratives ever written — Father Raymond Brown demonstrated that, while there are some differences among them, they are in substantial agreement overall.

Mel Gibson’s film is not a documentary but a work of artistic imagination. He incorporates elements from the Passion narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but remains faithful to the fundamental structure common to all four accounts. Within the limits possible in an imaginative reconstruction of the passion of Christ, Gibson’s film is entirely faithful to the New Testament.

Q: What struck you most about the film?

Father Di Noia: You want the simple answer? Jim Caviezel and Maia Morgenstern. Playing Christ has to be one of the hardest of all dramatic roles. I was very struck by the intensity of Caviezel’s portrayal of Christ. This is not easy to pull off, without the appearance of an intrusive self-consciousness.

Caviezel — and surely Gibson too — understand that Jesus is the incarnate divine Son of God, who is nonetheless fully human. Thinking back on the film, I realize that Caviezel accomplishes this primarily through his gaze, even when he looks out at us and those surrounding him through his one uninjured eye.

Caviezel conveys, entirely convincingly and effectively, that Christ is enduring his passion and death willingly, in obedience to his Father, in order to satisfy for the disobedience of sin. We are witnessing what the Church would come to call Christ’s «voluntary suffering.»

Recall the words of St. Paul: «Just as through one man’s disobedience all became sinners, so through one man’s obedience, all shall become just» [see Romans 5:19]. And it’s not just about obedience. It’s mainly about love. Christ is enduring this out of love for his Father — and for us. Dramatically, there is absolutely no doubt about this in Jim Caviezel’s outstanding portrayal of Jesus in this film.

But Maia Morgenstern’s Mary is equally powerful. It reminded me of something St. Anselm said in a sermon about the Blessed Mother: Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Watching Morgenstern’s portrayal of Mary, you get the strong sense that Mary «lets go» of her Son so he can save us, and, joining in his suffering, becomes the Mother of all the redeemed.

Q: There have been reports that the film is excessively violent. What did you think?

Father Di Noia: It’s not so much violent as it is brutal. Christ is treated brutally, chiefly by the Roman soldiers. But there is no gratuitous violence. The artistic sensibility at work here is clearly more that of Grünwald and Caravaggio than that of Fra Angelico or Pinturrichio.

We are talking about a film, of course, but Gibson has clearly been influenced by the depiction of the sufferings of Christ in Western painting. The utter ruination of Christ’s body — graphically portrayed in this remarkable film — must be set within this context of artistic depiction. What many artists merely suggest, Gibson wants to show us.

In a manner entirely consistent with the Christian theological tradition, Gibson dramatically presents to us the Incarnate Son who is able to bear what an ordinary person could not — both in terms of physical and mental torment. In the end, the ruined body of Christ must be seen with the eyes of Isaiah the prophet who described the Suffering Servant as bruised beyond recognition.

The physical beauty of Jim Caviezel serves to accentuate the overall impact of the progressive disfigurement which Christ undergoes before our eyes — with the terrible result that, like the Suffering Servant, «he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him» [Isaiah 53:2]. It requires the eyes of faith to see that the disfigurement of Christ’s body represents the spiritual disfigurement and disorder caused by sin.

Gibson’s portrayal of the scourging of Christ — from which many viewers may be tempted to turn their gaze — presents graphically what St. Paul says in Second Corinthians: «For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God» [5:21]. When you see the ruined body of Christ in this film, you know what it means «to be sin.»

Q: Over the years, many directors have tried their hand at films about Jesus, or the passion. Does Mel Gibson’s film that strike you as being particularly original?

Father Di Noia: I am not a film critic. Critics will have to judge Gibson’s film in comparison with other great depi
ctions of Christ’s life and passion, such as Pasolini’s and Zeffirelli’s. Like these other filmmakers, Mel Gibson brings his own unique artistic sensibility to the subject matter, and in that sense his film is entirely original.

Certainly, «The Passion of the Christ» is much more intensely focused on the suffering and death of Christ than most other films in this genre. But, as an initial reaction, three things about Gibson’s film strike me as being quite distinctive.

One is the portrayal of the devil, hovering in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, as a constant, eerily menacing presence. I can’t think of another film that has done this with such dramatic effectiveness.

Another thing is Christ’s solitude: Somehow, though surrounded by crowds of people, the film shows that Jesus is really alone in enduring this terrible suffering.

Finally, there is the depiction of the Last Supper by means of a series of flashbacks interwoven with the action of the film. Lying on the blood-drenched stone pavement after the scourging, Christ eyes the blood-spattered feet of one of the soldiers, and the film flashes back, significantly, to the washing of his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.

Similar flashbacks throughout the rest of the passion and crucifixion bring us to the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup: The audience, through Christ’s eyes, witnesses him saying «This is my body» and «This is my blood.» The sacrificial, and thus eucharistic, meaning of Calvary is depicted through these haunting flashbacks.

There is a powerful Catholic sensibility at work here. In his recent encyclical on the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II says that Christ established the memorial of his passion and death before he suffered — in anticipation of the actual sacrifice of the cross. In Mel Gibson’s artistic imagination, Christ «remembers» the Last Supper even as he enacts the sacrifice it memorializes.

For many Catholics who see these images, Mass will never be the same. In any case, issues of originality entirely aside, Mel Gibson’s film will undoubtedly be considered to be among the very best.

Q: Does «The Passion» blame anyone for what happened to Christ?

Father Di Noia: That’s a very interesting, and very difficult question. Suppose you pose it to someone who was unfamiliar with the Gospel passion narratives until seeing this film.

«Who is to blame for what happened to Jesus?» you ask. The other person pauses for a moment to think about this, and then responds: «Well, they all are, aren’t they?» This answer seems exactly right to me.

Looking at «The Passion» strictly from a dramatic point of view, what happens in the film is that each of the main characters contributes in some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas betrays him; the Sanhedrin accuses him; the disciples abandon him; Peter denies knowing him; Herod toys with him; Pilate allows him to be condemned; the crowd mocks him; the Roman soldiers scourge, brutalize and finally crucify him; and the devil, somehow, is behind the whole action.

Of all the main characters in the story, perhaps only Mary is really blameless. Gibson’s film captures this feature of the Passion narratives very well. No one person and group of persons acting independently of the others is to blame: They all are.

Q: Are you saying that no one in particular is to blame for Christ’s passion and death?

Father Di Noia: Well, I guess I am saying that — certainly in a dramatic sense. But from a theological point of view, too, Mel Gibson has depicted in a very effective way this crucial element in the Christian understanding of the passion and death of Christ.

The narrative recounts how the sins of all these people conspire to bring about the passion and death of Christ, and thereby suggests the fundamental truth that we are all to blame. Their sins and our sins bring Christ to the cross, and he bears them willingly.

That is why it is always a serious misreading of the Passion stories in the Gospel either to try to assign blame to one character or group in the story, or, more fatefully, to try to exempt oneself from blame. The trouble with this last move is that, if I am not one of the blameworthy, then how can I be among those who share in the benefits of the cross?

A line from a Christmas carol comes to mind: «As far as the curse extends, so far does his mercy flow.» We must acknowledge that our sins are among those Christ bore, in order to be included in his prayer, «Father forgive them for they know not what they do.» We very much want not to be left out of this prayer.

The Christian reader is summoned to find his or her place within this drama of redemption. This is clear in the solemn public reading of the Passion narratives during the Catholic liturgies of Holy Week, when the congregation takes the part of the crowd that shouts such things as «Crucify him.»

In a paradoxical way, the liturgy helps us to understand these otherwise horrendous outcries as prayer. Naturally, we don’t literally «want» Christ to suffer crucifixion, but we do want to be saved from our sins. In the perspective of faith, even the chilling «Let his blood be upon us and on our children» must be understood not as a curse but as a prayer.

Precisely what we want — and what even the crowd gathered before Pilate unknowingly wanted — is that, as the Book of Revelation puts it, we be «washed in the Blood of the Lamb.»

Q: There has been a lot of controversy about the film’s alleged anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. Can you tell ZENIT what you think about this?

Father Di Noia: Speaking as a Catholic theologian, I would be bound to condemn anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism in any recounting of the passion and death of Christ — and not just because of the terrible harm that has been done to Jewish people on these grounds, but also because, as I have already suggested, this represents a profound misreading of the passion narratives.

But let me answer your question plainly: There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish about Mel Gibson’s film.

It is regrettable that people who had not seen the film, but only reviewed early versions of the script, gave rise to the charge that «The Passion of the Christ» is anti-Semitic. I am convinced that once the film is released and people get a chance to see it, the charge of anti-Semitism will simply evaporate.

The film neither exaggerates nor downplays the role of Jewish authorities and legal proceedings in the condemnation of Jesus. But precisely because it presents a comprehensive account of what might be called the «calculus of blame» in the passion and death of Christ, the film would be more likely to quell anti-Semitism in its audiences than to excite it.

From a theological perspective, what is even more important is that the film conveys something that the evangelists and the Church have always seen clearly: What Christ experiences in the journey from Gethsemane to Golgotha, and beyond, would be completely unintelligible apart from God’s covenant with Israel.

The conceptual framework is set almost entirely by the history and literature, the prophets and heroes, the stories and legends, the symbols, rites, and observances, and ultimately the entire culture of Judaism.

It is this framework, most fundamentally, that renders intelligible and expressible the natural need for satisfaction and redemption in the face of human sin and the loving determination on God’s part to fill this need.

Far from inciting anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism, Gibson’s film will compel his audiences to deepen their understanding of this indispensable context of the passion and death of the Jesus of Nazareth, the Suffering Servant.

Q: What will the film’s impact be?

Father Di Noia: You know that throughout Christian history, the faithful have been encouraged to meditate on the passion of Christ. The spirituality of every great saint — the names of St. Francis, St. Dominic,
St. Catherine of Siena, come immediately to mind — has been marked by a devotion to the passion of Christ.

Why was this? Because it was recognized that there was no surer way to summon from the human heart the love that even begins adequately to respond to the love of God who gave his Son for our sake.

I think that Mel Gibson’s film will move people to this kind of love. Your heart would have to be made of stone for it to remain unmoved by this extraordinary film and by the unfathomable depth of divine love it endeavors to bring to life on the screen.

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