The Passion of the Christ
On Mel Gibson’s film, which recounts the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, His death, and resurrection, seen through the eyes of Mary

Mel Gibson’s film puts cinematographic art to the test in telling men of today about the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as attested by the Gospels and the message of the Church. It attempts, through aesthetic “commotion,” or movement, to have the viewer feel the actual power of asking himself the question about Christ. In contact with works such as Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), a Caravaggio painting, or Dante’s Commedia (The Divine Comedy), we are brought anew to questions about destiny, the meaning of the human journey, and the law that holds together the world. Analogously, though with evident differences, seeing this film raises the question about Jesus Christ asked by those who first met Him: “Who is this man?” Naturally, a viewer can watch a film about Christ with the same heedlessness with which he watched Gibson the actor in Lethal Weapon, and leave the movie theater, at best, with the conviction that the money for the ticket was well spent or wasted. Péguy said that the “user” has a great responsibility: he achieves the work of art–the quality of his attention is what decides the level of success. It is not a given that the millions of people who see the film will be attentive to the point that they leave with a true question, with a truly deep movement of their very person.

Infinite series of particulars
Art has only one law. It is a gesture different from all others that man performs to communicate his own existence. It isn’t an article, an essay, or a proclamation, nor is it even a discussion among friends. Gibson, in his Passion, has communicated his Christian experience, and he has done so, as happens for artists, by linking an infinite series of particulars into a unity of vision. The individual details (those that stay with us, that we talk about after having seen it) make impressions, evoke the most radical emotions. Thus, in this case, the sound of the original languages, the brutality of the treatment withstood by the condemned Jesus, certain long-held gazes of the characters, and the emergence in Jesus’ or others’ memories of scenes from the past, evoked by a detail such as a drop, the position of a leg… all these particulars and thousands of others are the fragments that the artist has arranged so that they strike our eyes and the inner eye of our emotions. But the artistic success of the movie lies in having held the energy of each of these details united in the compassion for the human figure of Christ in the moment in which He consciously accomplishes the mission entrusted Him by the Father. He isn’t a super hero, but a man who, in the instant of His extreme weakness, shows the source of His victorious strength, “Obedient even unto death.”

Mary’s gaze upon her Son
The extreme “normality” of those exceptional events is striking. God becomes man. That man was the young carpenter who jokes with His mother, who talks with His friends at dinner–every memory is like a Caravaggio painting (the director was inspired by him even in his choice of costume tonalities)–who breaks the bread, pours the wine, “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Then Judas’s betrayal. Peter’s denial, crushed by fear of reprisal. Mary Magdalene, forgiven. How can we not be surprised, like the Jewish soldier, by the “simplicity” with which Jesus re-attaches the ear Peter had severed? And, above all, Mary, the mother “aged more than ten years” (Péguy).
Gibson has chosen, as the main “dramatic” element–as the action in which we viewers might more clearly experience the compassion and toward which all the details merge-–precisely the Madonna’s gaze at her Son.
This is the main “dramatic space” of the film. It counts infinitely more than every other particular–actually, more than all the others (the trial, the presence of the demonic counter-gaze, the blood, of which there is a great deal, the screams, the landscape); it is emphasized, intensified, so to speak. She is the one who looks at Him, knowing; who looks at her Son with the infinite, agonized tenderness of being next to Him without being able to alleviate His pain, with her maternal desire to die with Him, but also with the consciousness that the central event of the world is being carried out. And He responds to that gaze, seeking it as any suffering son would. But He seeks it and also sends that gaze out again, in the final moment of the cross, into the history of the world, instituting the Church as their life in the bequest to John and to Mary, just as in the Last Supper, the images of which meaningfully counterpoint the Passion.

A clean blow
With a sure and technologically advanced use of cinematography, Gibson has offered a vision of the passion of Christ and of His figure that is not at all saccharine or sentimental. The controversies that have accompanied the film are difficult to justify, unless as expressions of unease that the film brings again to popular attention the figure of Jesus with His audacious claim. Similarly, the alarms about anti-Semitism don’t seem convincing: the Jewish people, bearer of all the weight of preceding history, is the nation from which Peter and John, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and thus Jesus of Nazareth were born, in fulfillment of the ancient prophesies.
It is true that since we are dealing with the question of Jesus Christ, the spectator’s role, for once, is not only to watch, but to seize the question that the film asks, “Who is this man?”–and seek an adequate answer. It is to be hoped that, outside the movie theater, the viewer will find occasions for companionship and hypotheses for work in responding to this interrogative. Because it is the central question of existence, of all times and of the entire universe, everything depends on how the liberty of each person positions itself before this fact.
Fr Giussani tells of a woman he met in confession. Her husband had died and one of her sons had gone crazy and killed his brother. So she was alone and railed against God for the injustice. He led her to a big crucifix in the back of the church and said, “If you have anything to say, tell Him.” And after a long silence, she replied, “He’s right.”
Perhaps here lies the strength of the film. A clean blow, a provocation to remember that Christianity is not just sentimentalism, a question of behavior, but a totally and “crudely” human fact. It has evoked and evokes irritation as well, not only for its realism: how can God lower Himself to such a level, and take on fragility and pain to the point of death?
The film closes with the resurrection, and here begins a new story, without which the one told by Mel Gibson would remain an incomprehensible fact of the past. That is an equally normal story, though exceptional, because human and divine.
And thus the question, “Who is this man?” opens to a still more decisive one, because the question of life today is “Where is this man?” Here all the drama of liberty and of the present is engaged. Who knows, maybe it will be told in an upcoming film.