Cardinal Pell on "The Passion"

«It Is Strong Meat»

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SYDNEY, Australia, FEB. 24, 2004 ( Cardinal George Pell wrote this commentary on the film «The Passion of the Christ.» It appeared in the Sunday Telegraph and on the archdiocese’s Web site.

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By Cardinal George Pell

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day when Mel Gibson’s film «The Passion» will premiere around the world, depicting the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

Through a combination of anti-religious hostility, fear of anti-Semitism and shrewd marketing, «The Passion» has received more publicity before its release than most films do during their brief span of life.

The film is a contemporary masterpiece, artistically and technically. It is not absurd to compare it with the paintings of the Italian master Caravaggio, because of its beauty and drama. It is more genuinely spiritual, even more violent but less erotic than Caravaggio’s canvases.

«The Passion» belongs to the turn of the 20th century, the cruellest in history, because of its violence which is explicit and continual. The scourging is worse than the crucifixion.

It is like Gibson’s film «Braveheart,» only more so, and confronting; viewers need to be warned. As a believer I found the film draining. Some with me at the screening wept.

It is certainly an antidote to those who think the crucifixion was like an afternoon tea party. Jesus is not trivialised nor sentimentalised.

The film is not a literalist transcription of the gospel accounts, but a work of art where the terrible conflict between good and evil is illustrated symbolically. Evil is personified by a terrifying androgynous figure of a woman with a man’s voice and (at one stage) a horrible child-like creature. Christ stamps on a snake (the tempter) during the agony in the garden at Gethsemane.

The outstanding performance is from Maia Morgenstern, a Romanian Jew, playing Mary the mother of Jesus. She is strong and beautiful in her suffering and tenderness, a convincing mother for the teacher and public figure who is being persecuted.

Actors who play the role of Jesus are at a severe disadvantage with me, because the demands of the role are impossible. I would not have gone across the road to hear some Christ figures in other films, but James Caviezel does well as Jesus. While Jesus’ upper denture was probably not as perfect or pearly white as his, he has reverence for what he is attempting and comes closer than anyone I have seen in the role.

This film is not anti-Semitic because the heroes Jesus and Mary are Jews. We witness a terrible quarrel within the Palestinian Jewish community. Neither Jesus, nor anyone else calls for revenge. He explains that his attackers do not know what they are doing. Neither does the film lay the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish nation.

The High priest Caiaphas and his supporters are not pleasant people, but we do not normally stereotype and condemn a whole people because of a few villains. This film gives anti-Semites no comfort. No one has accused the film of being anti-Roman, although they come out worst of all. Pilate’s ineffectual attempts to free Jesus are shown clearly and the Roman soldiers, or some of them, are sadistic brutes, not just doing their job, but revelling in their cruelty.

The film will be popular, confronting and controversial. It is light years away from «Jesus Christ Superstar.» Nor is it sugar and spice like «Godspell.»

Every type of person will come to see it, if for different reasons. Some believers will be affronted. More will have their faith strengthened. Non-believers will find it engrossing, an elemental struggle between good and evil. Those who are searching will be provoked to reflection. I have requested that all senior students in Catholic schools be invited to see the film, but there will be no compulsion.

It will help outsiders understand why there have been so many martyrs prepared to die for Christ, (more in the 20th century than any other) and why Christianity has such a profound influence in many different cultures after 2,000 years. The call to follow Christ is personal and primal. There was never any medieval morality play with an impact like this film’s.

The finest sermon on Christ I have heard was by an English layman, Malcolm Muggeridge; but that was a pale contribution beside this.

Generations of believers will see Mel Gibson’s «The Passion» as a classic. But it is strong meat. Not for the faint hearted.

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