Columnist Mark Holmberg of the Richmond Times-Dispatch has written one of the best reflections to date about The Passion of the Christ. Holmberg, a Pulitzer finalist for commentary in 2003, joined church members at a preview two days before the film’s opening.
What makes Holmberg’s column most impressive is that he engages the film both as a spiritual experience and a work of art, rather than as a relic for either side of the culture wars. So, for instance, Holmberg comments on a moment neglected by movie reviewers — when Satan moves amid the mob, holding a baby who turns toward the camera and takes pleasure in Jesus’ suffering. Holmberg writes:
You may be confused by some of the images and symbolism in the film, since they aren’t described in the Bible. But here’s one tip: While viewing the feminized Satan clutching that hellish baby, think about the images of Mary holding young Jesus, and remember how the devil loves to mock.
At last: After months of tedious debate about whether Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, a sadomasochist or a Pope-hater, a newspaper columnist raises an informed theological insight.
The Tallahassee Democrat picked up the theme through a panel discussion by five area clergy. Dr. Joseph Brown of University Ministries International listed the hideous baby as one of six images or symbols taken “directly from the the Scriptures”:
1) the scene with sweat dripping like blood as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane; 2) the reference to Jesus crushing the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15); 3) when Judas hung himself above a decaying donkey that Jesus had ridden on to Jerusalem and was called King of the Jews by the crowds, symbolizing that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this earth; 4) the children running after Judas representing spirits that tormented him after his betrayal; 5) the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove at Jesus’ Crucifixion, showing that the Father had not left him alone; and 6) Satan presenting a new baby symbolizing the Antichrist as he moves through the crowds.
My colleague Mark Moring of ChristianityTodayMovies.com wrote a brief piece called “What’s Up With the Ugly Baby?” Moring asked for Gibson’s comments on the image, and Gibson responded through his publicist:
It’s evil distorting what’s good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old ‘baby’ with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it’s almost too much — just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging him on his chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place.
The baby is depicted by the decidedly adult Davide Marotta, whose listing on Internet Movie Database summarizes his vocation as “midget actor and stuntman.” He played Tommy the Child Demon in Demons 2, so typecasting doesn’t seem to be much of a concern. In The Passion, Marotta’s lurid expression feels similar to images from Caravaggio or Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross.
No journalist has speculated on whether the image will prompt hate crimes against ugly babies or Italian-born actors of short stature.