Mel Gibson's Ultimate Hero Movie

An Art Historian’s View of “The Passion”

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 10, 2003 ( For a fortunate few of us Rome dwellers, the most exciting event of this week was the advance screening of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

In a small basement cinema of Rome’s Prati district, producer Steve McEveety tersely introduced the film, explaining that we would be seeing a mere rough cut of the newest Gibson opus.

From the stream of articles and testimonies this movie has spawned, it seems that most people who have previewed the film didn’t know what to expect. I did. I am a diehard Mel Gibson fan, and I expected the best. He didn’t let me down.

What did surprise me was that the person I always associated with the entertainment side of my life crossed over into my professional world. As a Renaissance art historian, I analyze art on chapel walls, above altars or in museums. Though film is arguably the world’s greatest art medium, I generally turn off these faculties on entering the movie theater, as they are rarely called upon for today’s films.

In the case of “The Passion,” every scene, every frame, is richly crafted to draw the viewer deeper and deeper into the story. A masterpiece of religious art — of the most powerful sort — “The Passion” involves the viewer to the point that he or she becomes part of the story.

Gibson’s filming stands in the High Renaissance tradition. The figures fill the screen, they loom over us, threatening to enter our space. When Christ falls for the last time on the road to Calvary, he turns towards us, the viewers, and slowly tumbles, arms outstretched, right over us.

The flashback to Christ and Peter produces a similar effect. The camera is placed to capture the face of Christ in profile, while Peter faces us full on. We are seated to the right of Christ, witnessing Peter’s solemn promises to follow Jesus even to death. Then the camera pans around so that Christ looks straight at us as he tells Peter that before the night is over he will have denied him three times. From bystander to protagonist in the blink of an eye.

The most compelling interplay between viewer and film occurs, however, during Gibson’s representation of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Mary holds her Son in the exact same manner, one hand cradling his body and the other hand open toward the viewer. The variation comes in that while Michelangelo’s Mary gazes solemnly down at her Son, Gibson’s Mary looks straight out at us. The movie draws to a close provoking a full and conscious acknowledgment of whom this suffering has been for.

Now it is one thing to fashion a work of art, and another thing altogether to get people to look at it. Every semester I host a crop of visiting college students, here to get a dusting in art history, eager to view the beauties of Rome. Yet on entering the Sistine Chapel they typically look up for just a moment or two and then turn to me for an explanation.

Contemporary society is not used to having to look at something long enough to let it sink in. Mel Gibson gets around this in part through the use of Aramaic and Latin in the film. He offers some subtitles, but not many, and the viewer finds himself searching the faces on the screen for responses, for personal interaction to try to understand visually what he cannot grasp otherwise.

The Caravaggesque play of light and dark across Pilate’s tortured face as he struggles to understand “what is Truth,” reveals more than the dialogue itself. In some cases, translation proves unnecessary. The scoffing and jeering of the brutal soldiers becomes feral barking, underscoring the meaninglessness of the violence it accompanies.

During my formative teen years, Mel Gibson accompanied me with his portrayals of reluctant heroes and good-hearted rebels. His best characters, such as Mad Max or Guy Hamilton in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” always walked a fine line between what was right and what was comfortable or convenient. When the character finally had to wrench himself toward selfless good, the effort was always visible, almost painful. Concealed in unlikely shells, the hero emerges at the time of necessity.

In “The Passion of the Christ,” Gibson has made the ultimate hero movie. In the opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus suffering with the foreknowledge of his imminent passion, pleading to be spared this task. The eerie figure of Satan, who would be distressingly at home in an MTV video, softly tempts and dissuades. “No man can bear this burden,” he whispers while Jesus lies prostrate, seemingly helpless on the ground. But Jesus lifts himself up, and with a decisive crack that makes the audience jump, he crushes the head of the serpent Satan has sent to tempt him.

Another classically heroic Gibson moment finds Christ on his knees, crippled under the weight of the cross. His mother runs to comfort him, whereupon he smiles bravely and promises, “See Mother, I make all things new.” The camera follows him up as he again shoulders the cross and struggles forward with renewed vigor.

Spurious charges of anti-Semitism have upstaged more important debate regarding the religious and artistic value of this film. The intensity with which Gibson forces us to think about Christ’s passion highlights the power of cinema as an art medium, as well as a tool for evangelization.

Personally, perhaps the sweetest note on seeing this movie was that my adolescent hero has become a hero in my adult life, showing courage and vision in professing his belief in Christ’s salvific sacrifice against formidable odds. Hats off to Mel.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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