As a child I attended formal services at church to commemorate The Last Supper and Good Friday. We walked the Stations of the Cross, read the gospel and listened to the tolling of bells. I formed my own interpretations of "visuals" for the events of these days --- the Last Supper, the betrayal, the walk up Calvary and the crucifixion. I remember sitting in a pew looking at my hands envisioning a nail being driven through them, crossing my ankles to get a feel for what Christ experienced on the cross and pondered analogies about the walk up Calvary being the length of my walk to school. In my own way I processed the last twelve hours of Christ's life. I still can remember the intense sadness I felt about these events and the heavy pall that was cast over these days each spring.
Now the trailers for The Passion of the Christ and the accompanying book of the same name are showing me a new interpretation of the suffering of Christ, which goes far beyond any that I had perceived in the past.
The book came across my desk after I had read --- and seen --- a lot about the film, though I had not yet seen it in the theatre. What stunned me was the power of these stills from the film and the feelings they evoked. It reminded me of an experience I had in 1963 after watching television coverage of the Kennedy assassination for days. A while later UPI and American Heritage magazine produced a book called Four Days, which was a photo documentary studded with journalistic coverage. I saw something different when I looked at Four Days. There was power in those shots.
I feel the same way looking at THE PASSION book. The rawness of the visuals gripped me and drew me into the story, causing me to feel it as I had not before. There is a very graphic shot of the nail being hammered into Christ's hand. The size of the nail, the texture of the rope and the grip of the executioner compose a picture of brutal horror. (I later learned that the hand holding the nail in the shot is actually Mel Gibson's and he pointedly used his left hand to symbolize the evil occurring that day.) It dwarfs any feelings I had in that church pew years ago.
While much has been made of the gore and blood of this film, as well as the controversy over the portrayal of the Jews, I saw something else in the book. The shots of affection between Mary and Jesus, which are seen early in the book, later contrast with the pain on Mary's face as events unfold. This pain is as brutal as the physical pain that grips the other shots. The determination and anguish on her face in the shots of her racing to the cross and then holding Jesus' body capture the emotion of Christians who recognize the enormity of Christ's sacrifice.
Everyone who has opened this book has a comment and impression about it. Whether you embrace its message, or dismiss it, you can't escape having some emotional reaction as you look at these images. In the months before the film opens the conversation about it has focused on religion and beliefs. I suspect that when we see it, the shock of the film will not allow us to dismiss these questions but will force us to face them just as Jesus anguished over his fate in the Garden of Gethsemane.
To me, this movie and book insure that Easter and the days leading up to it this year will be passionate ones. No matter what your religion, this movie will encourage you to take a look at your personal relationship with God. It also may present us all with an opportunity to start an honest dialogue across faiths instead of reverting to typical accusations and finger pointing.
A couple of years ago I participated in a discussion about the role of Abraham in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. While broad cultural differences divided the room that night, I saw the power of open and honest discussion. I hope the discussions in the weeks to come can be as positive.
As we hear of church groups buying blocks of tickets and even entire theatres for the showing of this movie, there is an opportunity to share and learn in a new way. At a time when so much of the world seems to be spinning without focus, a movie like this can galvanize people back to the basic tenets of their faith in a new light --- and give opportunity to ponder the enormity of God's sacrifice. This focus may just be what people need to embrace this Lenten and Easter season.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on February 16, 2004