Passion writers speak!

Mark Goodacre links to this page at the Society of Biblical Literature’s website, which includes a 74-minute MP3 of a panel discussion on The Passion of the Christ that took place seven months ago. Participants include co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald, translator and consultant Fr. William J. Fulco, chair David Shepherd, and scholars Alice Bach and Clayton Jefford.

Goodacre was at the event himself and posted his own comments at that time. I just came across this recording today, myself, so here are some of the things that jumped out at me, with the number of minutes into the MP3 that the referenced bits begin:

13: Fitzgerald talks about how he urged Mel Gibson to include the Resurrection, and how he suggested basing it on a painting by Andrea del Sarto in which Jesus, still inside the tomb, looks at his hand. Commenting on the scene that Gibson shot, he says:

It was a good picture, it was very close to what I had in mind. I would have liked to have seen a frontal view as well, with the puzzled expression that Andrea del Sarto managed to get into his picture, which was very powerful, because it was a combination of man and God, it was really something that had merged those two, rather like the fingers in Michelangelo’s work. It was beautiful, and I wanted to get something like that.

I have always loved the hands on Michelangelo’s David, and in fact some of my favorite moments in film concern characters who look at their hands — a scene near the end of The Neverending Story (1984) comes to mind, as does the “What a piece of work is man!” scene in the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet (1991), and to a lesser degree the scene where Luke Skywalker gets his new mechanical hand in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), though I don’t think his hand and face are in the same shot there — so I would really like to see this painting, but I don’t know Italian well enough to have caught the name of it or to know what I should Google.

22: Fulco says the decision was made to go with Latin instead of the more historically correct Greek partly because Greek would be “unfamiliar and rather jarring” to English-speaking audiences; plus, scholars are apparently of several different minds over how to pronounce Koine Greek, whereas there are only two ways to pronounce Latin, so rather than annoy 90% of Greek scholars, it was deemed better to annoy only 50% of Latin scholars.

26: Fitzgerald says Pier Paolo Pasolini was a “poet” and his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) is a “poem”, whereas Gibson — who shot his film in the same region that Pasolini shot his — is more of an “altar boy” and his film is “more of a mass”.

27: Fulco says, “Mel was very intent on having a macho Jesus in charge,” which prompts Bach to say that “macho” is “just an unfortunate term for me, because it sounds much more like Mel Gibson than Jesus.” Fulco proposes “a man of vigour” instead.

41: Fitzgerald comments on Gibson’s motivations:

There’s another aspect of how Mel Gibson did this that is interesting, from my perspective, and that is that I think he did it also because he’s afraid of God. And I think that’s very interesting, because I’ve come around to thinking, myself, that we ought to be a little bit more afraid of God than we are. [laughs] We’re getting away with too much.

Make of that what you will. I am reminded of how I once said Gibson’s very Catholic film reminded me a bit of the comics produced by the notoriously anti-Catholic Jack T. Chick, which certainly play up the fear angle; but I wouldn’t necessarily say that Gibson’s film is as unhealthy as Chick’s comics in this area.

44: Fitzgerald downplays the significance of the influence of Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions on his screenplay, and says she was just one of a number of mystics who said, for example, that soldiers tossed Jesus over a bridge in Gethsemane.

49: Fulco says that Gibson wanted his film to focus on the blood and guts and gore, and that the film’s possible overemphasis in this area is justified, because other Jesus films have downplayed the passion. “It’s an embarrassment, it’s whitewashed.”

53: Shepherd reflects that the Jesus that Paul was interested in may not have been the wise-teacher Jesus that so many critics of the film wanted to see, but “Christ crucified.” True, but to that, I would respond that Paul also shows little interest in all the beatings that happened before the crucifixion per se.

59: Fitzgerald says the flashback in which Jesus makes furniture is “not my favorite” and ultimately doesn’t work, though he does like the flashback in which Mary runs to her young son as he trips and falls. Personally, I don’t care for either flashback, myself.

The first has some things I like, especially the emphasis on Jesus’ physicality and his almost romantic attachment to his mother (which is just as inspired by the Renaissance as the depictions of Christ’s sufferings, or of his nudity in the Resurrection), but I now call it “the jumbo jet scene” because it reminds me of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) where one of the soapbox prophets predicts the invention of modern aircraft.

And the second is too anxious for my tastes; the mothers I know are so used to watching their children trip and fall that the kids have to be really hurt before they express any deep concern; I think the flashback would have been much more powerful if Mary had been smiling, soothing, in-control in the past, in contrast to her grieving, futile, utter lack of control in the present.

68: Fulco says Jesus starts speaking Latin in the middle of his conversation with Pilate because “Mel wanted Jesus to beat Pilate at his own game.” Fitzgerald chimes in that it is this development which attracts Pilate’s interest in Jesus’ innocence.

71: Fulco says Gibson is working on a special-edition DVD with 15 hours of bonus material, as well as an upcoming PG version of the film, and he says he expects the film to be re-released every year. Presumably, if he wasn’t kidding, he meant it would be released every year in theatres, but since The Passion Recut turned out to be a bust — and it was released unrated because Gibson couldn’t even secure a PG-13 for it — they may have to settle for re-issuing it every year on DVD, instead. Unless the box-office failure of Recut has put a dampener on Gibson’s DVD plans.

Personally, I kinda hope this special-edition DVD comes out, but I’m also kinda leery of trusting Gibson to be all that balanced or comprehensive in terms of how he lets the supplemental features reflect back on his film. So, whether he completes this new DVD or not, I think scholars should take Roger Ebert‘s advice and produce their own do-it-yourself commentaries on The Passion (and other films!). Certainly distribution shouldn’t be a problem; after all, I just downloaded an MP3 of a 74-minute panel discussion!

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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