The passion of old words and symbols

Jesuits rarely receive frantic calls from Hollywood megastars rushing to finish movies that are causing media firestorms.

But Father William Fulco is getting used to it, as Mel Gibson completes his cathartic epic “The Passion of the Christ.”

While mixing dialogue the other day, Gibson hit a scene in which a man standing at a door lacked something to say. The director needed a line — right now. Fulco’s first question was unique to this project: Was this character supposed to speak Latin or first-century Aramaic?

“Mel said the camera was not on the speaker’s face, so we did not need to synchronize what he said with his the movements of his mouth,” said Fulco, who translated the screenplay into the two ancient languages, with English subtitles.

“The character needed to say something in Aramaic in the ballpark of, ‘What do you want?’ So I had him say in rather colloquial early Aramaic, ‘MAH? MAH BA’EH?’ That is literally, ‘What? What wanting?’ “

That worked.

It has been nearly two years since Fulco answered the telephone and heard a strange voice blurt out: “Hey Padre! It’s Mel!”

Gibson’s proposal was unusual, but fit the Jesuit’s skills as a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fulco began digging into Hebrew texts seeking the roots of the now-dead Aramaic language, while simultaneously exploring dialects such as Syriac spoken today in tiny Christian enclaves in Iran, Syria and Turkey. He also stepped into heated academic debates between those who favor a more Italian-friendly Latin and those who reject this approach.

“I’m getting hate mail about Latin pronunciations,” said Fulco. “On guy wrote who was angry about what he called ‘these ecclesiastical bastardizations’ of the Latin. Not only was he going to boycott the movie, he said he was going to call his high school Latin teacher and tell her to boycott the movie as well. …

“I have to keep reminding people: This is not a documentary. We had to make artistic choices.”

Legions of critics, of course, oppose the film for other reasons. Liberal Catholics and some Jewish leaders claim the script is tainted by anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Gibson — who has invested $25 million in the project — has previewed early versions to rapt audiences of traditional Catholics, evangelicals and others. The film opens on 2,000 U.S. screens on Feb. 25, which is Ash Wednesday.

It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of “The Passion of the Christ” flow directly out of Gibson’s personal dedication to Catholicism in one of its most traditional and mysterious forms — the 16th century Latin Mass.

“I don’t go to any other services,” the director told the Eternal Word Television Network. “I go to the old Tridentine Rite. That’s the way that I first saw it when I was a kid. So I think that that informs one’s understanding of how to transcend language. Now, initially, I didn’t understand the Latin. … But I understood the meaning and the message and what they were doing. I understood it very fully and it was very moving and emotional and efficacious, if I may say so.”

The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the “sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar — which is the same thing,” said Gibson. This ancient union of symbols and sounds has never lost its hold on him. There is, he stressed, “a lot of power in these dead languages.”

Thus, the seemingly bizarre choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message. The goal of Gibson’s multicultural, multilingual team was to make a statement that transcended any one time, culture and tongue.

“We didn’t want another movie with Jesus as some kind of Aryan superman or Jesus as a surfer,” said Fulco. “We saw one movie in which Jesus was almost this Michael Jackson kind of character. Try to imagine that. …

“We didn’t want an American Jesus, or a Japanese Jesus or a French Jesus. What we wanted was a language that allowed Jesus to be none of these nationalities, so that he can be all of them at the same time. This is a universal story.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.