Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Parsing TPOTC: Prominent themes
The following is adapted from an article I submitted to our diocesan paper. In place of a review, I offer it as a reflection on prominent themes or characteristics of "The Passion of the Christ." Onward to the parsing of themes...

The tender humanity of the story. Having heard both of the level and extent of physical violence, one could easily assume this is an excessive film based on a horrific faith in an almost demonic god who would demand such suffering to appease his wrath. Lost is the message of God’s love, one might fear. But the tender humanity found throughout the film speaks more of love than of involuntary mutilation. One could invoke the film’s portrayal of a reluctant, conflicted Pilate as evidence of this humanity. Certainly the exchange between Pilate and his wife, and his wife and Mary, highlights this tenderness. There is even Pilate’s assistant who rushes in to stop the scourging and later, on the way to Calvary, speaks shocking words to the barbarian foot soldiers driving Jesus: “Can’t you see he can’t go on? Help him.” Veronica’s act of love is a welcome reprieve from the brutal march to the crucifixion. And there is Cassius, bothered along the way by seeing the Galilean’s agonizing mother, who even appears respectful at the foot of the Cross lancing Jesus’ side in the presence of Mary.

Of course, it is the humanity of the Son of God made man that shines through most clearly. In a scene transporting viewers to the life in the home at Nazareth, we see Jesus working diligently on making a table and we catch some endearing moments between a mother and her son. In a very few masterful minutes, the movie shows Jesus laboring to complete an ordinary task, the playful love of family, and the authority of a mother over her child, even a child who is God (you’re not going inside wearing that filthy apron!). Mary’s presence mutes the brutality and brings comfort to the suffering Christ. Simon of Cyrene’s increasing sympathy for Jesus again reconnects viewers to the reality of Jesus’ human nature. The crossed arms of Jesus and Simon as they struggle with the Cross alert viewers to the climax of this tenderness: Simon reassures Jesus that “we are almost there” and he cries as he must depart Jesus’ side. Somehow, in the midst of horrid, cruel violence, a beautiful love and nobility is shown. Though he is the focal point of the brutality, nothing but the peace of calm resolve emanates from Jesus. Far from communicating the idea of a vengeful God, viewers see a Son determined to grasp fully the chalice that is his. What else could be gleaned from the pained crawls as Jesus, by force of will, drags himself toward the Cross, as if assisting the crucifixion?

The Holy Eucharist. This theme is established during the interrogation at the court of Caiaphas the high priest. When the chief priests and the whole council seek evidence against Jesus, one outraged witness lodges something akin to the following: “He claims to be the ‘Bread of Life’ and says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood or we will not have eternal life!” Even a casual reader of the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel – the Bread of Life discourse – notices the pains John took to establish that this teaching brought about murmuring, arguing, outrage, and the defection of both Jews and even disciples alike. Though the gospels cannot confirm that this piece of evidence was offered against Jesus, it is entirely believable that such was the case. If any piece of evidence would expose Jesus for being a radical, surely this piece would rank high. Has the truth of the Holy Eucharist ever ceased being controversial?

With the stage thus set, the viewer experiences the very offering – the fraction – of the flesh and blood that must be consumed. White cloths in hand, Mary and Mary Magdalene are shown in an act of reverence, not unlike the use of purificators at Holy Mass, wiping up the saving blood of Jesus that has almost literally flooded the scourging arena. Reverence, too, characterizes Veronica’s few moments with Jesus and tradition’s report that she became the guardian of a miraculous image of his face. With an artist’s beautiful stroke, the exposing of Jesus’ body at his stripping is connected to the removal of a cloth at the Last Supper, which unveils the bread that will become Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. Back at Calvary, as the soldiers attempt to affix Jesus’ right hand to the Cross, his shoulder is purposefully dislocated, a vision that elicited gasps from all and, it can be imagined, brought to every priest-viewer’s mind the sound of the breaking of the Sacred Host. And finally, as familiar as the Holy Mass itself, the raising of the Cross is linked to Jesus’ very act of instituting the Holy Eucharist – raising the bread and the chalice of wine and transforming them into his very Body and Blood! This is my Body! The Body and Blood of the Lord exposed on the raised Cross, though different in appearance, is one and the same as the Holy Eucharist held aloft for our adoration and reception.

The Marian theme. This theme was beautifully woven into the story, crowning a feminine tapestry whose summit was the unforgettable living Pietà at the foot of the Cross. That Mary is referred to both as “Mary” and “Mother” – by all characters – cannot escape the Catholic filmgoer. Surely every viewer must have been touched deeply by the strength and the intimacy of the relationship of mother and son (played by Morgenstern and Caviezel). That this bond appeared so strong is no small accomplishment considering that, for the entire movie, Mary and the adult Jesus touch on only two brief occasions (at a fall and when she kisses his nailed feet). It is only after his death that Mary is able to embrace Jesus, no longer separated by the swiftly moving Romans and the crowds. The relationship between Jesus and Mary is shown to be mystical, something of a much higher realm, not requiring physical contact in order to be authentic. Juxtaposed to the unimaginable physical brutality displayed on the screen, it sounds ludicrous to suggest that it was the interaction between Jesus and Mary that was almost unbearable to view. However, emotional reactions seem to justify the claim.

Of all that could be said about this theme, the movie seemed to communicate clearly that Jesus was not only deeply comforted by his Mother’s presence, but even more, the sight of her strengthened his resolve to accept the cup of suffering in fulfillment of the Father’s will. What is the possible message here? Why did the sight of Mary seem to give Jesus such resolve? Because in looking at his Mother, Jesus was looking at the one who first said “yes,” “Amen,” to God’s will! The film seems to reveal the idea that the resolve to comply with God’s will was a lesson Mary herself imparted to Jesus! When he saw her, Jesus saw a comforting mother, yes, but also the dedicated handmaid of the Lord, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, the first disciple! Catholics rightly relate to Mary as a model of strength in discipleship, but the entirely likely possibility that she stood in such a role even for Jesus is a most astounding suggestion and an artistic triumph of “The Passion.”

Time and again, though separated by a crowd, Mary watches her Son and he looks to her. We catch their first glance in the movie outside of Caiaphas’ court; Mary arrives in haste just as Jesus is being drug before the council of chief priests. Though imprisoned after the council adjourns, Mary finds the spot on the floor just above where her Son is chained, and Jesus knows she is there. In one demonstration of the resolve Jesus draws from Mary, we see Jesus, having been flogged by canes, look to his dear Mother and slowly, painfully, stand back up with a dignity concealed by tormented flesh. Considering the comfort and resolve the sight of Mary brings to Jesus, is it any wonder that Satan would mock the mother-child relationship in that odd scene carrying a grotesque child before the eyes of the Lord? As Jesus leaves the praetorium, beginning his walk to Calvary, Mary follows his every step, moving through the crowd to remain parallel to Christ. Again, in defiant opposition, Satan, too, slithers through the crowd on Jesus’ other side. In a heart-wrenching display of this theme, Mary, remembering a boyhood fall of Jesus, runs to her Son as he falls with the Cross. She reassures him and tells him she is present and will not leave him. In that brief exchange, Jesus, with renewed energy and determination, picks himself up again, bearing the Cross and marching on. Finally, on Calvary, as an exhausted Jesus is slumped on the ground, he sees Mary on the edge of the crowd. She kneels down to be at eye level with him and eventually she is able to approach the foot of her Son’s Cross.

So many other themes and characteristics could be discussed. But these three seem most central. In addition, they are cause for us to celebrate that our Catholic imagination has been captured favorably on the big screen in a labor of faith and love.

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