"'The Passion' … for Its Author, Is a Mass"

Vittorio Messori on Mel Gibson’s Work

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ROME, FEB. 18, 2004 (Zenit.org).- 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) and his best-selling «Ipotesi su Gesù» (The Jesus Hypothesis, 1976).

After seeing Mel Gibson’s «The Passion of the Christ,» he wrote the following article for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and offered the piece to ZENIT for publication in other languages.

* * *

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. The same version that next Wednesday will be in 2,000 American cinemas, 500 English ones, and as many Australian, the version whose expectation has caused a short circuit on Internet sites and which in the first week will recover (the bookmakers say it is certain) the $30 million of production costs.

The Pope himself has only seen a provisional version, lacking among other things the final soundtrack. But, if this evening we are the first, the Italians will have to wait until the 7th of April, the French and the Spanish until June.

When the long list of credits ends, where American names alternate with Italian, where recognition of the municipality of Matera is side by side with that of theologians and experts in ancient languages, where Rosalinda, the daughter of Celentano (the devil) is next to a Romanian Jew, Maia Morgenstern (the Virgin Mary), and the technician presses the light switch, silence continues in the little room.

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. And, then, coincidences read like signs: the Madonna with the face of the Jewish actress with the name Morgenstern which, it was only noticed later, is, in German, the «Morning Star» of the litanies of the rosary.

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. A 14th-century Thespis’ cart, with which every evening, a priest in black cassock, of the type with the long line of buttons, celebrated an open-air Mass, in Latin, according to the rite of St. Pius V. Precisely here, in fact, is the real reason for the decision to make the Jews speak in their popular language, Aramaic, and the Romans in a low Latin, of the military, which wounds our schoolboy ears, used to Ciceronian refinements.

Gibson, a Catholic who loves the Tradition, is a strong champion of the doctrine confirmed by the Council of Trent: the Mass is «also» a fraternal meal but it is «above all» Jesus’ sacrifice, the bloodless renewal of the passion. This is what matters, not the «understanding of the words,» as the new liturgists wish, whose superficiality Mel mocks as it seems like blasphemy to him. The redemptive value of the actions and gestures that have their culmination on Calvary has no need of expressions that anyone can understand.

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. Precisely as the prophecy of Isaiah reminds us on the «Servant of Yahweh» which, taking up the whole screen, is the prologue of the entire film. The wonder, however, seems to me to be verified: 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. There will be a book (two, in fact, are in preparation) to help the spectator understand.

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.

If two hours are dedicated to the martyrdom, two minutes suffice to recall that that was not the last word. From Good Friday to Easter Sunday, to the Resurrection, which Gibson has resolved by making a particular reading of John’s words: an «emptying» of the funeral shroud, leaving a sufficient sign to «see and believe» that the tortured one has triumphed over death.

Anti-Semitism or, at least, anti-Judaism? Let’s not play around with words that are much too serious. From my viewing, I agree with the many and authoritative American Jews who admonish their co-religionists not to condemn before seeing. 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.

To Caiaphas’ obstinacy in calling for the crucifixion (that collaborator Sadducee who did not in fact represent the Jewish people, but, rather was detested by them; the Talmud reserves terrible words for him and for his father-in-law Annas), more than abundant counterbalance is made by the unheard-of sadism of the Roman executioners. The political cowardice of Pilate that leads him to violate his conscience stands counter to the courage of the member of the Sanhedrin — an episode added by the director — who confronts the High Priest crying out that that trial is illegal. And is it not John, a Jew, who supports the Mother? Is not the pious Veronica a Jew? Is not the impetuous Simon of Cyrene a Jew? Are not the women of Jerusalem, crying out in despair, all Jews? And is it not Peter — a Jew — who, when forgiven, will die for the Master?

At the beginning of the film, before the drama is unleashed, an anguished Magdalene asks the Virgin: «Why is this night so different from any other?» «Because,» Mary answers, «we were all slaves and now we will no longer be so.» All, but absolutely all: whether they are «Jews or Gentiles.» This work, Mel Gibson says, saddened by aggressions to prevent it, intends to propose again the message of a God who is Love. And what Love would it be if he excluded any one?

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